Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite
Nominations: Picture, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Score, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
Wins: Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
A prominent theme in many of Christopher Nolan’s films is guilt. Guilt drives Leonard’s quest to find (again and again…) his wife’s killer; it drives Bruce Wayne’s/Batman’s desire to rid Gotham of the uncaring, unscrupulous criminals who keep the city on edge; it drives Robert Angier to continually try to one-up Alfred Borden. In those cases, though, the guilt mutates into a frustrating form of vengeance/revenge—the guilty characters fall into a vicious circle of needing to do more in order to alleviate their guilt, which has us questioning them, their motives, and in a larger sense, what is righteous and what is villainous. Is Leonard really a “good guy” because he’s killed his wife’s murderer (and a few other men who Teddy manipulated him to)? Is Batman really “heroic” because he has virtuous intentions despite the fact that he’s basically the reason the Joker and Bane terrorize Gotham City? Can Angier really be seen as sympathetic and justified in his one-upmanship when his satisfaction must be fed by death? The characters are “heroes” in the narrative sense, but their actions, when taken as a whole, are far from admirable.
While springing from the same garden, Dom Cobb in Inception has been cultivated as more decent and honest character than his previous Nolan brethren. True, he planted the idea that life was a dream in his wife Mal’s mind—which ultimately led to her death—but unlike the above characters, Cobb’s guilt remains internalized. He doesn’t blame anyone but himself, and because of that he has no need to seek vengeance against anyone. On the other hand, because Mal manifests in his mind as the personification of his guilt, she acts out against others on his behalf.
Another big difference between Cobb and those other characters is how he has a definable, tangible, and achievable goal: he wants to be with his kids. As simple as that is, it’s also universal and relatable; even if you don’t have kids, odds are there’s someone in your life you care an incredible amount for, whom you would do almost anything for. While Leonard, Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Angier do have people they care about, those people are, sadly, gone from their lives. Unlike Cobb, there’s nothing they can do to be reunited with their loved ones. They’re basically looking at situations in which even if everything works in their favors and they succeed in their quests they will still fall short of a completely satisfying ending.
And that leads to what is probably the most discussed aspect of Inception: its ending. Obviously, there are two diametrically opposing perspectives: the ending is a dream, or the ending is real life. There are plenty of easily accessible articles and videos everywhere online that provide compelling evidence and arguments for both points of view, so really, what it comes down to is what you want to believe.
Whatever side you fall on, I think the most important detail in the final scene is that whether a dream or real it doesn’t matter to Cobb. His focus is solely on his children, which should be our indication that it shouldn’t matter to us if the reunion is actually happening or just a conjuring of his mind’s desire. The ordeal with planting the idea in Fischer’s subconscious resulted in not only Fischer experience a reconciliation with his father but Cobb alleviating his guilt over Mal’s death.
Yes, he did initiate everything that would kill Mal, but he does admit his role and expresses his regret (granted, to his projection of Mal, but it’s better than nothing), so we’re better able to forgive him. He’ll live with his guilt forever, of course (how could he not?), but taking responsibility for his actions may make managing that guilt easier. Because he has finally accepted his part in her death, he is redeemed, both in the world of the film and in our eyes as well.