Christopher Nolan has a thing for widowers.
I like to think there are two main classes of Nolan film: high concept and Dark Knight. (And a smattering of others that now include Dunkirk). The former are the films that play with time and perception, that make you question what you’ve seen and studied it later. These films are Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar.
And they all star widowers.
Each of these films’ protagonists loses his wife, and his character is shaped by it. How much he’s shaped varies, however, because with each successive film you can see a very clear progression. The protagonists grow and evolve, becoming less defined by and obsessed with their wives’ deaths, more focused forward. They find solace and meaning in the future, in their children. It’s as if each is a new moment in the grieving process, working toward acceptance and catharsis over the course of the 14 years in which the films come out.
Does this mean Nolan’s widowers are all the same person? Maybe. They certainly all share a tragedy, and the ways in which they cope with it follows a clear progression that I’ll study below.
But first—the deaths of these characters’ wives aren’t particular spoilers since they come early or even before the start of the film. I’m going to talk about their deaths in the context of the rest of the films, however, and that will be spoiler heavy. So tread carefully if you haven’t seen these films. Or don’t tread at all. It’s up to you.
If you’re still here, let’s get started.
Memento (2000) is about Leonard (Guy Pearce), a man obsessed with revenge. Leonard’s wife was raped and murdered in front of him, and he’s devoted his life to tracking down and killing the person who did it. As avengers go, Leonard is more obsessive than most—he can’t form new memories, and the last thing he can remember is his wife’s death. He’s innately defined by his loss.
Of course, the big reveal at the end of the film is that Leonard’s wife actually survived the night she was raped. And the implication is that he accidentally killed her himself, giving her too much insulin when she tried to call his bluff on his memory problem.
Leonard has conditioned himself to believe his wife was murdered, altering his final memory of her and devoting his life to tracking down the person he thinks killed her. What’s worse is that he does find and kill the man who raped her, but he decides to expunge the evidence of it. This way he can devote the rest of his life to revenge, the only thing that matters.
Leonard’s existence is informed exclusively by his wife’s death—he literally can’t form any new reasons to live. His entire life takes place in his distant past, and his only plan for the future is a vengeance he doesn’t know he’s already achieved.
The Prestige (2006) could be argued to have two (or three) protagonists, but since far fewer of his secrets are kept from the audience, I would argue that the main character is Robert (Hugh Jackman). Early in their careers, Robert and Alfred (Christian Bale) are friends. The friendship ends when Robert’s wife drowns during a magic trick because she can’t undo the knot Alfred has tied around her hands. This sparks a desperate, lifelong feud.
Just like Leonard in Memento, Robert becomes obsessed with his wife’s killer. But unlike Leonard, he knows exactly who his target is. And instead of killing him, he devotes his life to besting him, to being a better magician. Healthy it is not, but this obsession is at least focused more outward—Robert lives his life, and he excels at what he loves. His revenge is productive, rather than destructive.
And most importantly, he has an eye to the future. When Robert sees Alfred with a wife and baby, it kills him—he begrudges Alfred for having everything that he’s lost, everything he’ll never have. Near the end of the film, he actually adopts Alfred’s daughter. It’s meant to be one more insult for Alfred, of course, but it also gives Robert a portion of the future he lost. Unlike Leonard, he has something new to live for.
It’s the first appearance of children in these widowers’ lives, and it’s an important introduction that will get more and more prominent.
Inception (2010) is a big step forward for our widowers. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has turned his anger inward—he considers himself wholly responsible for his wife’s death, and his grief and guilt make it almost impossible for him to work. Cobb may not be set on revenge, but his subconscious is.
Importantly, though, Cobb has children. Unlike his predecessors, he has the future to look to. He has people to live for.
And he does live for them. The entire plot of the film hinges on Cobb’s desperation to see his children again. He exposes himself and his team to all kinds of danger so he can get back to them. And, against all odds, it works. (I won’t get into it here, but the prevailing theory of many interpretations is that the final sequence of the film does take place in reality).
This success of Cobb’s plan is important because he’s the first of Nolan’s widowers to get a happy ending. And that happy ending is contingent upon both the past and the future—the plan can only succeed if Cobb finally lets go of his wife. By accepting Mal’s death and voicing the guilt he feels, Cobb can rescue Saito and return to reality. By rescuing Saito and returning to reality, he can be reunited with his kids.
Cobb gets past defining himself by his wife’s death, and he moves into the future with his children.
Interstellar (2014) is the continuation of Cobb’s happy family life. Coop (Matthew McConaughey) has lost his wife to cancer. He resents his post-science world for not having the technology to save her, but that’s all it is—resentment. There’s no guilt, no thirst for revenge.
In fact, this explanation of Coop’s wife’s absence is one of her only mentions. Another comes when Coop quotes her, trying to convince Murph that he has to leave:
“After you kids came along, your mom said something to me I never quite understood. She said, ‘Now we’re just here to be memories for our kids.’ And I think now I understand what she meant. Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of you children’s future.”
This is some obvious ghost foreshadowing, of course, but it’s also a strong message about the secondary nature of parents and, by extension, of spouses. The moment his children were born, they became the most important thing in Coop’s life. His wife’s death has been hard on him, of course, but by the start of the film he’s already achieved the acceptance it took Cobb almost all of Inception to get. He lives entirely for his children, and for the future.
Because that’s what the entire film is for: the future. Coop’s world is dying, and he devotes himself to finding a better one for his children. In the end, Coop succeeds, getting the human race off of Earth and pointing them toward a new home. Just as importantly, however, he gets to see his own future generations. When he visits Murph on her deathbed, she’s surrounded by her children and their children and on and on. It’s the ultimate continuation of living for your children.
Coop doesn’t just let go of his past—he sees his future.
The widowers of Christopher Nolan’s concept films follow a clear trajectory toward healing and redemption. Little by little, each lets go more of the past and defines himself less by grief, focusing instead on his children and the future. They go from living completely in the past and bent on revenge, to living for a present revenge with half an eye to the future, to letting go of the past in favor of the future, to abandoning a lifetime’s worth of the past and working exclusively for the future.
Is this the mark of a filmmaker who’s aging, both refining his craft and shifting his priorities as he has children of his own?
But it’s also possible to think of these widowers as a single character of sorts, gradually dealing with the same tragedy over the years, healing and coping more with each iteration.
Nolan’s asked us to accept stranger things, after all.