Culture Warrior: Christopher Nolan’s Asshole Protagonists

Culture WarriorWith 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.

Guy Pearce in Memento

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…

Landon is a PhD candidate currently finishing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture.

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