Back to IndieWire

The 10 Best Performances In The Films Of Christopher Nolan

The 10 Best Performances In The Films Of Christopher Nolan

Across the past decade, we’ve come to associate Christopher Nolan with the kind of grand spectacle that we hardly ever see anymore. From “Batman Begins” through to this week’s “Interstellar” (read our review here, and a different take in our retrospective here) Nolan makes grand movies about big ideas, and sometimes (mostly unfairly, we’d argue) comes in for criticism that he’s not that interested in people.

But as shown by everything from his more intimate, character-driven early work to the top-notch ensemble of “Interstellar” (which features Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, Michael Caine, John Lithgow, Mackenzie Foy, and many more), Nolan’s actually a far better director of actors than you’d imagine for someone making $200 million epics. Indeed, almost every one of his films has a performance to cherish, and several have multiple memorable turns.

So, with “Interstellar” hitting theaters this week, we thought we’d celebrate by picking out ten of our favorite performances in Nolan movies. Take a look at our selections below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments.

Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby in “Memento” (2000)
If we acknowledge that, for all its promise, the acting in Nolan’s debut “Following” is a bit dodgy (not a huge shock, given that it was mostly using non-professional friends), then the first truly impressive performance in the director’s canon came in his breakthrough picture, 2000’s “Memento.” All the principles are excellent — Joe Pantoliano‘s weasely manipulator Teddy, Carrie-Anne Moss‘ wounded provocateur femme fatale Natalie, even the briefly heartbreaking Stephen Tobolosky as Sammy Jankis — but it’s Guy Pearce‘s film all over, giving the actor perhaps the most iconic and defining performance of his career. It nearly didn’t happen: Brad Pitt flirted with the film but passed in favor of “Snatch,” and Thomas Jane and future “Dark Knight” star Aaron Eckhart were also considered. But Pearce, a character actor in the body of a leading man who has an unusual, and very fitting, ability to feel like a blank slate, is so good here that it’s possible that the film wouldn’t work as well without him. The part of Leonard Shelby, who can’t retain new memories for more than a few minutes at a time and is out to avenge the murder of his wife, is a tricky one: in theory, he should be starting every section with a new kind of grief and confusion. But Pearce’s deliberately stilted, faltering performance pulls it off, while also suggesting a ferocious drive that keeps him going even through his occasional reboots. It’s a turn of both absolute certainty and total uncertainty, but Pearce unites the two with strength, and with vulnerability, and even with some dry humor. It’s a shame that, so far, the actor hasn’t reteamed with Nolan (they discussed Pearce playing Liam Neeson‘s role in “Batman Begins” before agreeing that he was too young for the part).

Robin Williams as Walter Finch in “Insomnia” (2002)
One of Nolan’s more unsung strengths is his facility for casting: his risky but rewarding choices for major roles (remember the outcry over Heath Ledger or Anne Hathaway in the Batman films?), his canny deployment of character actor aces like Mark Boone Junior or Nicky Katt, or his unexpected but ever-effective use of faded ’80s icons like Eric Roberts, Tom Berenger and Matthew Modine. But maybe his greatest casting coup came with his first studio picture, “Insomnia,” in which comedy superstar Robin Williams played the villain. Nolan certainly wasn’t the first to think of Williams in a serious role, and he wasn’t even the first to put him in a dark role — “One Hour Photo” and “Death To Smoochy” had shot immediately before, and both premiered ahead of “Insomnia.” But the film, in which Wililams plays crime writer and murderer Walter Finch, sees the actor master the dark arts. His comedic tics and eagerness to please fall away in a restrained performance that embodies the banality of evil. And not even the banality, either: Williams captures the queasy self-justification of killers like Finch, the true belief that they’re fundamentally misunderstood by the world, that they killed because they loved too much, and it’s a powerful, truly loathsome, truly remarkable performance, and one that reminds us once again how much we’ll miss the star.

Al Pacino as Will Dormer in “Insomnia” (2002)
Speaking of “Insomnia” and unexpectedly restrained performances: Al Pacino. The actor had done some good work in the decade or so before (“The Insider,” for example), but for the most part, by the year 2002, the legendary star had descended into the period of his career that we like to call the “Shouty Al” era — the scenery-chewing, never-knowingly-subtle magnification of everything that Pacino used to be. But “Insomnia” (released the same year as Pacino nadirs “S1mOne” and “People I Know“) proved to be something of an exception, a beautifully muted and textured turn that, at least until this year’s “Manglehorn,” proved to be the actor’s last great big-screen performance. Pacino takes the role played by Stellan Skarsgard in the Norwegian original, here a big-city cop facing corruption charges at home, who’s called up to help a murder investigation in Alaska with his partner (Martin Donovan), who soon reveals that he’s agreed to testify against his pal to save his own skin. In pursuit of the suspect, he accidentally, or perhaps not, kills his partner, and as he’s blackmailed by the killer (Williams, see above), he begins to lose his mind to the sleep disorder of the title. The film is in many ways Nolan’s least interesting (it’s the only one he doesn’t have screenwriting credit on, and it’s a more familiar tale as a result), but it’s still a tense and atmospheric little thriller, and Pacino’s performance anchors the whole thing. His subdued, tortured nature as he sinks into sleepless guilt and questions his own actions is striking for a performer who’d so often been big and blaring in the years before. Plenty of actors have played guilt over the years, but few have seen it take such a physical toll on them: Pacino’s exhaustion is palpable, in the best sense. Again, Pacino hasn’t worked with the director since, but he knew he was on to a good thing: Steven Soderbergh, a producer on the film, visited the set, and recently related to the New York Times that the actor told him “at some point in the very near future I’m going to be very proud to say I was in a Christopher Nolan movie.”

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman in “Batman Begins” (2005)
When Nolan landed the plum job of directing “Batman Begins,” he met with half of young Hollywood, with names like Jake Gyllenhaal, Joshua Jackson, Eion Bailey, Henry Cavill, Hugh Dancy, Cillian Murphy and Heath Ledger (the latter two of whom would later crop up in Bat-films) meeting or testing for the role.  But it was then 30-year-old Christian Bale, who’d won acclaim in recent years for “American Psycho,” “Laurel Canyon” and “The Machinist,” who nabbed the part in the end. And boy, did Bale prove to be the right choice, melding perfectly with the director’s vision of a realistic Batman. Bale is strong in all three films (though has less to do in the middle chapter, which is also the one where his Bat-voice becomes a little silly), but it’s the first film that proved to be his finest hour in the franchise. One of the main things Nolan wanted to do, as the title might suggest, is make a film actually about Batman (all previous versions had really focused on the villains, if we’re being honest), and Bale is the very heart of the movie, giving a committed, physical, serious, but not joyless performance. Or rather, performances: the brilliance of Bale’s turn is the way he splits the character into several aspects. There’s the fierce, dedicated private Bruce Wayne, the borderline animalistic, deliberately terrifying Batman, and the drunken playboy that is the public face of Wayne, as crucial a part of his secret identity as the Bat-mask. Nolan and Bale make performance a key part of the character (“You took my advice about theatricality a bit… literally,” the villain tells him), and the result was crucial in reinventing the character for a new generation. Good luck to Ben Affleck and everything, but he’ll have a very tough task in topping Bale’s performance.

Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier in “The Prestige” (2006)
Nolan’s reward for reluanching the Bat-franchise from Warner Bros was this adaptation of Christopher Priest‘s novel, a film seen at the time as a mild disappointment, at least financially (though it actually made $100 million worldwide off a $40 million budget). It’s not hugely surprising that it wasn’t a blockbuster: it’s Nolan’s most difficult, darkest film, and in large part that’s due to a top-notch turn from Hugh Jackman as one of the film’s leads. The “X-Men” star plays an American magician in London who, after the accidental death of his wife (Piper Perabo) on stage, becomes locked in a bitter rivalry with former friend Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). The latter character is dialed down, technically brilliant but prickly and uncharismatic. But Nolan cannily uses Jackman’s stage musical experience to immediately convey that Angier is the superior performer, if not the better magician. He’s the more immediately sympathetic and likable of the two, but the real brilliance of Jackman’s performance is the way that he turns the character into an outright villain, obsessive and borderline murderous in his pursuit of revenge and success, and the final reveal about his trick is one of the most shocking in modern cinema. For a star so innately likable, it was a hugely brave move to play a character so bitter and unpleasant, but Jackman seems to relish the chance, gradually giving glimpses as to the twisted husk of a man that Angier has become. (And special mention to his brief additional performance as the drunken actor used as a double in the trick, a rare moment of levity in a film that doesn’t have much of it.)

Rebecca Hall as Sarah Borden in “The Prestige” (2006)
Let’s be honest for a moment: with a handful of exceptions, Nolan’s women don’t always get a fair shake. Some are better rounded than others, but quite often they’re exposition machines (Hilary Swank in “Insomnia,” Ellen Page in “Inception“), or characters without much agency who exist mostly to motivate a hero (Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal in the Bat-flicks). Rebecca Hall‘s role in “The Prestige” arguably fits into the latter category, to some degree, but it’s still a strikingly raw and wrenching turn that’s one of the most purely emotional performances in the director’s work, at least pre-“Interstellar.” Hall, then aged only 24 and with only one other screen performance under her belt (underrated rom-com “Starter For 10” had premiered at TIFF the month before), doesn’t crop up until some way into the movie, playing a nanny/governess who falls in love with Bale’s Borden. The two swiftly marry and have kids, but he can seem schizophrenic: deeply in love with her one day, indifferent and distant the next. Initially, she can put up with it (the answer, as it turns out, is tied to Borden’s big secret), but when he fairly blatantly starts having an affair with assistant Scarlett Johansson, it becomes too much to bear. Hall’s emotional collapse, leading to her suicide, is the most powerful, shocking in a film full of powerful and shocking things, and hits home in a way that some of the women failed by Nolan’s other male heroes don’t necessarily. No wonder that Hall, almost immediately, was marked for big things.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Like we said earlier, even with goodwill bought by the critical and commercial success of “Batman Begins,” people were surprised, even angry, about the choice of pretty-boy actor Heath Ledger, best known for his Oscar-nominated turn in “Brokeback Mountain,” as the Joker in sequel “The Dark Knight.” After all, Jack Nicholson‘s turn in 1989’s “Batman” was still one of superhero cinema’s most iconic villains, and Ledger was hardly known for this kind of thing. But it was the sneak attack that’s the key to his titanic performance: every tic, gesture, line-reading is unpredictable, making the character into a destructive force of nature that feels genuinely dangerous. The actor understands that the Joker shouldn’t be funny to anyone but himself, and his skewed sense of humor is one of the most distinctive variations on the performance: despite attempts by the media to bring Ledger’s commitment to the part into the narrative of his death (which happened after the film wrapped, six months before release), he told an interviewer while on the “I’m Not There” press tour that it was “the most fun I’ve had playing a character, hands down.” And it shows. Even if Ledger had lived to see it, his Joker was always going to stand in the top tier of screen villains, and define the character for generations to come.

Tom Hardy as Eames in “Inception” (2010)
As much as we love “Inception,” some of the characters can come across as cyphers to some degree — look at poor old Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has almost nothing to play, or Ellen Page, a slave to all the information she has to get across. But the exception is Tom Hardy, who plays the “forger” on Leonardo DiCaprio‘s team of dream-hopping con-men. Hardy had come to Hollywood’s attentions two years earlier with Nicolas Winding Refn‘s “Bronson,” but cemented his rising stardom here with a turn that’s rather unlike what we think of as Nolan characters: sly, funny and even kind of sexy. There’s little sense of Eames on the page, but Hardy’s off-kilter rhythms make him cunningly into a sort of archaic British public-school rogue out of an Evelyn Waugh novel: you get the sense he was kicked out of Cambridge, has wandered the world racking up gambling debts and lovers, and somehow fell into Cobb’s orbit. Hardy suggests so much with so little, whether his slightly faltering delivery of his plan regarding Cillian Murphy and his relationship with his father seemingly calling to mind his own family issues, or his rivalry/flirtation with Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur — nothing’s ever said, exactly, but you definitely get the sense that they’re jumping bones off-screen, or at least that they want to. It’s a colorful and fun performance in a way that we don’t see enough of in Nolan’s films, and we could use more like it in the director’s canon.

Michael Caine as Alfred in “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
In his twilight years, the legendary Michael Caine has become the unexpected mascot of Nolan’s movies: he’s featured in all six of Nolan’s films since “Batman Begins,” proving a reliable supporting hand from that film through to a fine turn in “Interstellar.” They’re all typically strong performances (even the one as brief as in “Inception”) but perhaps Caine’s finest Nolan hour so far came in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Of all the relationships Bruce Wayne has had throughout Nolan’s trilogy, none have been as important as that with Alfred, his most significant father figure. As the man who raised him, and promised his parents to look out for the young man for the rest of his life, Alfred has grappled with Bruce’s desire to save Gotham even as it so very often comes at the risk of his own life. And in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Alfred reaches the limit of what he can stand by and watch Bruce do. With his body battered, spirit waning and public image still tarnished, Bruce is very much on a path of martyrdom early in the movie (and seemingly pretty much suicidal), something the world-wise Alfred recognizes all too well, and he will have no part of it. When he announces to Bruce that he can no longer in good conscience be with him — and reveals at the same time the contents of Rachel’s letter from “The Dark Knight” as a last resort to get Master Wayne to move on from his plans to return as Batman — it’s a crushing scene. And Caine is absolutely shattering in it, delivering one of the best pieces of acting in the entire trilogy, giving the film a much-needed emotional core, and the trilogy a lovely arc for Bruce and Alfred.

Anne Hathaway as Selena Kyle in “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
As we said, women in Nolan’s films can get something of a rough ride, but the director’s final Bat-film proved to be the major exception to that rule, as it let him deploy the most famous of Bruce Wayne’s female counterparts: Selena Kyle, AKA Catwoman. Anne Hathaway landed the role (beating out Keira Knighltey, Jessica Biel, Kate Mara, Charlotte Riley and Gemma Arterton), and like Ledger, wasn’t a choice that fans embraced at first, her public persona being quite some distance away from previous inhabitants of the catsuit like Michelle Pfeiffer, Eartha Kitt or Halle Berry. But that turned out to be the point: Nolan’s take on Kyle was as radical a reinvention of the character as his Batman and Joker had been before that. The only way that the idea of having nine lives plays in here is as Hathaway’s Kyle as a survivor, one who’ll fight and scrap and do whatever it takes to walk away without a scratch. Her ability to drop in and out of a character (witness that deft, sexy switch into her real self when Bruce Wayne catches her stealing his mother’s pearls, or her transition into screaming damsel in distress so she can sneak out of a shootout) mirrors Bale’s performance in the first film, but she’s a better manipulator, a better people person, even if she doesn’t really like other people. Most people, anyway: Hathaway really sells both the genuine amorality of Kyle in the early stages, and her growing, genuine admiration, and seemingly more, for Wayne and Batman. “The Dark Knight Rises” is, while divisive, arguably the best-acted of the trilogy, but it’s Hathaway that walks away with the honors.

Honorable Mentions: Of the cast of “Following,” Lucy Russell is the best as The Blonde — she’d go on to star in Eric Rohmer‘s “The Lady And The Duke” before cameoing in “Batman Begins.” In “Memento,” the aforementioned Carrie Anne-Moss and Joe Pantoliano are both great, while “Insomnia” has a nice supporting turn from Nicky Katt, and another from the great Paul Dooley.

We might argue that “Batman Begins” is the most inconsistently acted of the Bat-movies, but franchise stalwarts Michael Caine and Gary Oldman are both strong, and Rutger Hauer‘s good value as a corporate villain. Aside from Christian Bale‘s typically solid, unshowy work in “The Prestige,” we’d also pick out Andy Serkis and, in another example of Nolan’s facility for casting, David Bowie.

Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal are both good in “The Dark Knight,” while Marion Cotillard makes an effectively ethereal villain, of sorts, in “Inception.” Finally, one certainly shouldn’t ignore Tom Hardy‘s boldly bonkers turn in “The Dark Knight Rises,” which sees the actor performing with his eyes and physicality alone.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,