Back to IndieWire

The Films Of Christopher Nolan: A Retrospective

The Films Of Christopher Nolan: A Retrospective

We can all agree at this point that a certain sub-set of Christopher Nolan‘s fans are out of hand, what with the death threats to critics and all. But even if we were one of those who didn’t like “The Dark Knight Rises,” or indeed the rest of Nolan’s output, we suspect that we’d still be glad he existed. While some might find his movies humorless (though we’d disagree), or chilly (though we’d disagree), or overly rigid (we’d… mostly disagree), no one else is making films like Christopher Nolan, taking nine figures of Warner Bros.’ money, pairing it with big ideas and concepts, and making resoundingly entertaining and thought-provoking blockbusters.

 It’s almost easy to forget that before he was making some of the biggest-scale movies in history, Nolan made his name on low-budget, ingenious film noirs. And yet, when you looking at the sub $10,000 “Following” or the $200 million “The Dark Knight Rises,” you clearly see that it’s from the same filmmaker. We’re dying to see where Nolan goes from here, but in the meantime, with “The Dark Knight Rises” hitting theaters at midnight (read our review here), and feeling like the end of the first act of Nolan’s career (the end of the franchise that made his name, seemingly his last collaboration with DoP Wally Pfister, who’s heading off to become a director himself), it seemed like the right time to look back at the director’s last fifteen years or so of movies. Check them out below, and let us know your own thoughts on Nolan in the comments section below.

“Following” (1998)
A writer (Jeremy Theobald) falls under the spell of a stranger, Cobb (Alex Haw, with a character whose name would return for the protagonist of “Inception“), who breaks into strangers’ houses. The young man starts following in his new mentor’s footsteps, only to fall for The Blonde (Lucy Russell), one of his victims, and ends up way over his head. A simple enough premise, but as we’d all come to learn about Christopher Nolan, that simplicity is deceptive. Shot on weekends on a tiny budget (about $6,000) over three or four months, not long after Nolan graduated from University College London (he was only 27 when the film was made), “Following,” a nifty but rough-edged neo-noir, is certainly a victim of its limitations. Nolan served as his own DoP, and some of the handheld compositions are striking, but it occasionally feels a little amateurish, never coming close to the work Nolan would later do with Wally Pfister. The acting — mostly by non-professionals (lead Jeremy Theobald is now a psychologist, Alex Haw is an architect, with only femme fatale Lucy Russell continuing to act — she later led Eric Rohmer‘s “The Lady And The Duke”) isn’t the strongest, although partly because Nolan only shot one or two takes to conserve film stock. But the script does also showcase much of what would bring Nolan to fame; a fiendishly intricate structure and a taut pace that rattles along all kinds of twists and turns (though, there is arguably one too many) in a leaner-than-lean 70 minutes. It’s a sketch for what would follow on, but one that shows the immense promise he held even at such a young age. [C+]

“Memento” (2000)
Following” might have been scrappy, but it was impressive, and long before the film started doing the festival rounds, Nolan had his follow-up ready to go. His producer and then-girlfriend-now-wife Emma Thomas had sold Nolan’s script, “Memento” (based on a short story by his younger brother), to Newmarket Films, and it quickly became a hot property around Hollywood. According to James Mottram‘s “The Sundance Kids,Brad Pitt was interested in the lead role with Aaron Eckhart and Thomas Jane also in the running. But it was Guy Pearce, hot off “L.A. Confidential,” who took the lead role of Leonard Shelby, a man unable to create new long-term memories, on the hunt for the man who caused his injury and killed his wife. It’s in many ways a true successor to “Following,” in the same neo-noir metier (though this time a gloriously lit California, courtesy of Wally Pfister, in their first collaboration), and with an even more intricate structure; Shelby’s story is told backwards, from his execution of pal Teddy to a beginning/ending that reveals that much of what little he knows about his existence is a lie. It’s an infinitely more confident film than Nolan’s debut, controlled and playful, and the structure (perhaps bar the black-and-white segment, which feels a little too much) is far from a gimmick; a sad and ingenious series of snapshots that drip-feeds the torturous plot while putting the viewer in Leonard’s disorienting shoes. Pearce is terrific, and in support, “The Matrix” graduates Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano got to show they were far more than sci-fi sidekicks. It might not be as rewatchable as some of his films (and watching it “forwards” as it were, is educational, but rather robs the film of its point), but it’s a pretty astonishing leap up the ladder, and it could be argued that it’s the director’s most complete film to date. [A-]

“Insomnia” (2002)
Praised hugely on release, Nolan’s studio debut has slipped in critical standing over the last decade. Looking back on the film, that’s somewhat unfair — it’s a very strong little thriller, with some of the best acting in any of Nolan’s films. But it’s a hard film to truly love, perhaps because for arguably the only time in his career, it feels like a gun-for-hire job, a chance to prove himself with big names and more scope. Nolan had been picked out by Steven Soderbergh — who had raved about “Memento,” helping the film to get a U.S. release — and hired him to direct a remake of the Norwegian thriller of the same name for his Section 8 production company and Warner Bros. Stellan Skarsgård took the role in the original, but here it’s Al Pacino as the LAPD cop sent to Alaska with his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) to help with the enquiry into the death of a 17-year-old girl. Chasing a suspect, Pacino accidentally shoots his partner, who’s just told him that he’s going to testify against him to Internal Affairs, an incident witnessed by the killer (Robin Williams), who blackmails him into helping frame the victim’s boyfriend for his own murder. Nolan handles everything handsomely in an old-fashioned way, but sometimes feels a little disengaged (it’s the only time he’s not worked on a script himself), and the screenplay by Hillary Seitz occasionally inches into cop movie cliches. But at the same time, Nolan gives the story a wonderfully creepy atmosphere (again, as with “Memento,” the film takes place entirely in daylight; few filmmakers can make the sun as menacing and bleak as the nightime), and coaxes very strong performances out of his cast. Robin Williams was near-revelatory (this and “One Hour Photo,” released the previous year, remain his best dramatic turns), and it’s to date the last true Pacino turn of greatness, the actor perma-tired and letting a lifetime of sins catch up to him with quiet dignity. It’s a world away from the Shouty Al we get more often than not these days. So in retrospect, yes, it’s minor Nolan, but it’s still markedly better than 99% of Hollywood procedurals these days. [B]

“Batman Begins” (2005)
Insomnia” was enough for Warners to feel confident in giving Nolan the keys to their big franchise revival, and the helmer moved swiftly into developing a bold new take on Batman with co-writer David S. Goyer. The film made him the A-lister he is now, and spawned two massive sequels, but it can’t just be us that finds it, in retrospect, the director’s weakest film. The approach is absolutely something to be lauded; only Nolan could take the premise of man dressed as a bat fighting crime and make it as plausible as possible. And for the first time, we had a Batman movie that was actually about Batman, with Christian Bale giving three distinct, and excellent performances: Bruce Wayne in private, wounded and still grieving and furious; Bruce Wayne in public, the drunken, irresponsible  playboy: and the Batman, a terrifying force of nature. The little choices unquestionably make Bale’s the definitive portrayal of the character, and in Gary Oldman and Michael Caine, he has wonderful support. But Nolan’s still adjusting to his bigger playset, with the action mostly choppy and confusing, and the tone is slightly uneven. And while the first two acts are pretty good, Nolan loses the thread in the third, the realistic tone giving way to a hammy Liam Neeson performance (“Excuse me, I have a city to destroy!” — although it should be said, Tom Wilkinson gives him some competition in the scenery chewing), some creaky lines, uneven, misjudged humor (including Gary Oldman acting like Jake Lloyd in “The Phantom Menace“) and some slightly cheap and ill-conceived hallucination scenes (Batman the monster and the Scarecrow’s fire-breathing horse are nice ideas, but let down in the execution). The film slows to a crawl every time Katie Holmes is on screen too — the actress was reportedly forced on Nolan by the studio, and his disinterest shows. It’s a laudable first effort, for sure, but far, far better things were to come. [C+]

“The Prestige” (2006)
Nolan’s strangest film by a country mile and probably his most divisive, “The Prestige” was the little passion project that he knocked off with his ‘Batman’ cred in remarkably short time (filming began in February 2006, and it was in theaters only eight months later). Based on the novel by sci-fi author Christopher Priest, it follows the story of two magicians, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), who become embroiled in a years-long feud after Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo) drowns in an accident that he holds Borden responsible for. They move on, only crossing paths every so often, and each becoming famous for a trick which sees them vanish across a room into thin air, but each also holds a terrible secret that will have dreadful consequences. Many found the film (which is glorious-looking, thanks to Pfister’s best-ever photography and Nathan Crowley‘s astounding production design) hard-to-follow, thanks to Nolan’s puzzle-box-like structure, and hard to like, due to two murderous, bitter protagonists. But, if you’re concentrating, the director’s storytelling instincts never get you lost (the secret to the mystery is detailed in the opening shot, as it turns out), and to our mind, Bale and Jackman each give enough charm and sympathy to their performances that you can feel for both, although Nolan delicately lets your sympathies come down on one side of the fence by the end. And while it’s certainly a film for the brain first and foremost — Nolan using the world of magic as a metaphor for moviemaking and storytelling in general — it packs an emotional punch, thanks in part to a tremendous performance by Rebecca Hall in, amazingly, her first major film role. A film quite unlike any in recent memory, and one that you suspect only Nolan could have directed, it’s the kind of thing we hope he returns to now he’s done with the Bat-franchise. [A]  

“The Dark Knight” (2008)
A sprawling crime saga running two and a half hours and until recently, the highest-grossing comic-book movie of all time (since surpassed by “The Avengers“), Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is still arguably the greatest superhero movie ever made (though that may change this weekend). But it’s also not without its flaws. Heath Ledger as the unhinged and unforgettable Joker and the cast elevate the entire thing, removing most traces of suspension of disbelief issues, but even Aaron Eckhart can’t make that realistic-style Two-Face make-up really work in Nolan’s ultra-realistic world (we spend most of his time on screen worrying what kind of infections he’s going to catch). And if anyone can tell us the narrative reasoning for the faked death of Jim Gordon, we’d be most grateful, because that particular plot thread seems unnecessary, extraneous and poorly executed. Still, aside from minor problems such as that, thematically, “The Dark Knight” is rich, textured stuff, arguably a minor love story about two opposing forces that cannot exist in the same universe without one another. Moral themes of how the means justify the ends are provoked, and the political and social implications brought up in its grand finale are stupendous. Still, this is the Joker and Ledger’s show, the late actor playing a nihilistic villain who’s anarchist on the outside and deviously nefarious on the inside, who essentially is enamoured by Batman. He doesn’t want to kill him, the Joker wants to prove to this fellow freak that their methods are essentially one and the same and that the people he protects aren’t worth fighting for. “You’ll see…when the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other,” he cackles. And while he may never fully convince Batman, the villain always shakes the man to his core. [A-]

“Inception” (2010)
Honestly, until we sat down in the theater, we expected “Inception” to be Nolan’s “Heaven’s Gate” — an expensive indulgent folly, the kind of film directors all too often fall to after being given carte blanche to make whatever they like. But we’d forgotten that Nolan had been working on the screenplay for a decade, and had honed his skills to a greater level than ever before, because “Inception” is an absolute triumph, and the culmination of everything the director’s career until then had been building towards. A deeply personal art film disguised — and also working brilliantly as — a giant summer blockbuster, it sees Nolan focus in on a bold science-fiction idea: implanting an idea in someone’s mind by entering their dreams. But while many would use that pitch as an excuse for Lynchian imagery up the wazoo, Nolan gives it his meticulous attention to detail and rules-setting, creating a clear and satisfying universe that, nevertheless, has enough texture that it doesn’t become airless. He engages deeply with big concepts; about where ideas come from, about the function of dreams and consciousness, about love, grief and closure. And yet the film is consistently entertaining, a pacy caper film with cracking action sequences (the director finally nailing that side of filmmaking), that also doubles as a brilliantly thought out metaphor for the movie-making process itself. We can see how some can grate against the exposition, although as far as we’re concerned, it’s about as painless as it could be (although it’s a shame that Ellen Page can never just ask the question “Why don’t you get Michael Caine to bring your kids to you in France?”). And we can see that some might find it hard to identify with Nolan’s rule-bound, organized, sexless dream world, but as we’ve said before, it’s a hugely personal film, and we suspect that this is the way that Nolan’s dreams look. It’s as weird and difficult a film that has ever made $800 million at the box office, and if this is the kind of original filmmaking that Nolan will continue to make, we’re positively pleased that he’s retiring from the Bat-game. [A]

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

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

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox