With all the invention, intriguing plot webs, and overall solid cinematic storytelling that Christopher Nolan’s films are credited for, yet another innovative characteristic of his signature narrative approach is often looked over: his own special brand of antihero. A thread that has connected Nolan’s films (scripted often in collaboration with his brother Jonathan) is the presence of a central male character who possesses some combination of destructive egotism, desperate selfishness at the risk of others, aggressive self-righteousness, willful delusion, or even the first signs of a messiah complex (“asshole” is used in the title of this post simply as an umbrella term for all the negative traits connecting these protagonists).
I credit this aspect of storytelling and character development to the brothers Nolan, for filmmakers who work so successfully in Hollywood aren’t often able to bring to the screen characters who contain so many obvious flaws, and further credit goes to them for actually immersing us in their characters’ subconscious (figuratively in the case of all their films not titled Inception), making us give a damn about these characters to the point that sometimes these otherwise obvious personality flaws are only visible upon reflection after the film has been experienced. Nolan’s characters are often complex and intelligent, but beneath any confident exterior resides a deeply troubled psychology – some more obvious than others.
Unnamed Protagonist & Cobb in Following (1998)
The central protagonists of Christopher Nolan’s no-budget first feature are basically a pair of stalkers. The objective here is not an obsessive pursuit of sexual attraction, or burglary when either of these characters break and enter into one of the houses of who they follow and take an item or two, but simply inflicting slight alterations in their victims’ lives that could potentially dismantle relationships, or at the very least create in their victims a sense of paranoia or well-justified confusion that takes one’s daily life just off-kilter enough to provide a seed of potential dismantling. The objective here is not some philosophy of destruction or a test of the chaos theory, but simply an odd brand of curious, and ultimately very dangerous, people-watching. Nolan’s characteristic nonlinear plot webbing is here, but so is his use of protagonists who are not only anti-heroic, but in fact frequently do reprehensible things.
Leonard Shelby in Memento (2000)
Nolan’s breakthrough film features a deeply broken protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a man who lost his wife to a brutal murder and – with an unusual mental handicap – devotes every fiber of his being in a desperate attempt to bring her killer to justice. The confusing layers of his investigation reveal that either or both of his two confidants may be taking advantage of his condition for the convenience of their own self-interest, but the ultimate act of duping is revealed to have come from Leonard himself. As Leonard’s search for justice reaches a dead end (there is no “killer” to be found except, indirectly, himself, and his long-term memory is revealed to be just as questionable as the short-term), he realizes that it is not justice, but the daily feeling of a drive and a purpose, that he really seeks, so Leonard allows himself to forget what he has learned and tricks himself into continuing the pursuit of a mystery for which there is no real answer and a justice for a crime that can’t be paid for because he can’t handle the trauma of his wife’s death. This means he soldiers on, continuing to be used for the personal gain of people around him, and inevitably kills people who were in no way affiliated with the crime – a simple and untrue version of which he has tricked himself into believing happened. Pearce’s Leonard is ultimately just as conniving and destructive as the unreliable confidants who use him, except he willfully deceives himself instead of other people in the interest of self-preservation and to provide for himself a sense of purpose that is, at its roots, empty.
Det. Will Dormer in Insomnia (2002)
Nolan’s first studio film (a remake of the 1997 Norwegian Insomnia) features a particularly unsympathetic protagonist. Al Pacino’s Detective Will Dormer, in pursuit of a man killing teenage girls in rural Alaska, accidently shoots and kills his partner in the film’s first act, and attempts covering up evidence of his killing while trying to assuage his own guilt in pursuit of the original murderer in question. Dormer, like several of Nolan’s protagonists, is more interested in self-preservation than the greater good, naïvely thinking future doings of good will somehow make past mistakes justified. Dormer takes advantage of the rookie admiration of the far younger Detective Burr (Hilary Swank), while directing and toying with pieces of evidence which compromises an investigation that aims to bring actual innocents (the teenage girl) to justice. Even as Dormer meets his fate and admits the truth, it comes about only when confronted with indisputable evidence, and his efforts ultimately bring about his own destruction.
Click over to the next page as we enter Nolan’s Batman years…
Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman Begins (2005)
This website describes the central conceit of the Batman franchise thusly: “Wealthy man assaults the mentally ill.” Jokes aside, the continually fascinating thing about Batman as a character across all media has been his questionable status as hero: is Bruce Wayne a wealthy egotist with a personal agenda who sees himself as above the law, or a genuine protector of the innocent? This dichotomy is more thoroughly explored in The Dark Knight, but Batman Begins certainly presents its roots. The expressly unheroic heroics of Nolan’s Wayne (Christian Bale) starts with an obsession borne from tragedy (Leonard Shelby and Bruce Wayne are clearly connected in this regard), and a seemingly sincere desire to bring justice to a corrupt city is in fact entrenched in an unquenchable desire for revenge (this is made evident when the young Wayne attempts to kill his parents’ murder in a state courthouse, an act that would have gone above the law and endangered the innocent) – Wayne’s very existence is revealed to be rooted from an unhealthy conflation of the noble idea of justice with the destructive (both interior and exterior) pretense of revenge. After all, it takes a certain amount of ego to think oneself is worthy of crimefighting superheroism, and a broken spirit – if not total psychosis – to dress like a bat. The contradictions of Wayne’s philosophy and proposed purpose are more thoroughly explored in this film’s sequel, but such notions are hinted at in many moments of Batman Begins – like when Wayne refuses to execute a criminal for Ra’s Al Ghul, but puts dozens more in danger of death during his escape immediately after.
Robert Angier & Alfred Borden in The Prestige (2006)
This complex labyrinthine game of oneupsmanship between a pair of rival magicians, like any professional rivalry, is exercised as a play between the powers of two competing egos. That the battle of egos takes place in a profession whose sole purpose is that of entertainment further cements the blatant absurdity taking place within this hubristic competition (but, in true Nolan fashion, absurdity in this case can be mighty compelling). Throughout the film, magicians Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Borden (Bale) try to sabotage each others’ tricks, damaging reputations, plagiarizing one another, and endangering each others’ safety in the process – all rooted in an insecurity from the competition of the equally talented other. It is fitting that both these characters are in the career of creating illusions, for their respective egos prevent them from realizing that success is illusory if it comes as a result of sabotaging the competition (the presence of illusion also takes a thematic role in Inception and serves as the source of Leonard’s naïve pursuit of justice in Memento). Like many of Nolan’s protagonists, it is self-destruction rather than destruction of each other that comes as a result of this battle of egos.
Bruce Wayne/Batman in The Dark Knight (2008)
The dichotomy of Batman is literalized in this megablockbuster sequel through the maniacal, chaotic presence of The Joker: one must exist in order for the other to foster and have a purpose, and The Joker’s costume-donning attention-grabbing psychodrama is hardly a large step away from the iconography of Batman – the very presence of both signifying a city that has long gone irreparably insane. In order to even come close to competing with an enemy free of sane motivating factors, a destructive harbinger of evil for its own sake, Wayne compromises all previous principles, notably in his pseudo-fascistic invasion of the privacy of Gotham’s citizens through their cellphone signals, an act which alludes that Batman is self-deceptive in his supposed interest in securing the safety of Gotham’s innocents (that is, Wayne not only thinks he’s above the law, but that he is the law). However, much less has been spoken regarding the film’s ending, which can be read as one of the most cynical endings a superhero film has ever manifested: Wayne orders Commissioner Gordon to preserve the previous image of Harvey Dent as model defender of citizens rather than his violent transition into Two-Face, while Batman himself takes the blame for the destruction Two-Face has brought. Once positioning himself as the World’s Greatest Detective, the true darkness of the Dark Knight is unveiled as the protagonist ends the film as a propagandist, one who seeks to control the knowledge of the people rather than defend them, and an all-too-eager martyr who sees the masses as too unstable to handle the reality of Harvey Dent. One has too see themselves as superior to the common people to ascribe to Bruce Wayne’s brand of ‘protection’ in this film.
Dominic Cobb in Inception (2010)
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is something of an amalgamation of Nolan’s previous antihero types, as he possesses the name of one of the leads of his debut film (“Cobb” was also used for the similarly well-tailored confident expert of Following), but also contains the echoing memories of a personal trauma that acts as the main instigator of his actions and, ultimately, his selfishness. Like Leonard Shelby, Cobb is both motivated and haunted (in this case, quite literally) by the death of his wife, and, like Leonard, suffers a guilt resulting from his perceived complicity in her death. As a result of his obsession with her memory and inability to bring closure to his demons, he ends up putting his crew’s dreamscape-set heist in great danger, a danger that could result in insanity within a decades-long imprisonment for any of its members. Cobb sends his crew into the layered dreamscape knowing full well of the risk but never informing them of it, thus duping his confidants and friends. Though – again, as in Memento – Cobbs’s real flaw may be his self-deception, as he too can be argued, depending on one’s interpretation of the film’s final shot, to have willfully chosen to live a lie in order to embrace an illusory sense of closure and purpose that he believes in the end justifies his many questionable actions.
Thoroughly inspired in each of their films by the moral ambiguity characteristic of protagonists in the film noir genre, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have given us a variety of complex protagonists dealing with various levels of personal crises and navigating their own obvious flaws, indulgences, obsessions, demons, and self-interests. I can’t wait to see what asshole they’ll dream up next.