Tenet is just around the corner (although the corner keeps getting further away), fuelling cineaste hopes that this year won’t be a total cinematic write-off. And yet, the hype just doesn’t seem to be there. Maybe it’s because we’re understandably cautious of returning to the cinema. But it’s prompted some to go through Christopher Nolan’s back catalogue and ask if there’s more to it than that.

Perhaps the simplest way to describe Nolan’s films is to call them puzzle boxes. The appeal of their story is to find out what the story is; he introduces high concepts and lets them unfold and explain themselves across the running time. For example, no actual dream espionage happens in dream espionage thriller Inception until the film’s third act. Similarly, central character Cobb has a secret (and key character motivation) that’s teased out until the very end. Nolan prefers clever exposition and world-building to character development. His films are intriguing and grab attention, but his personal interest in the story always seems to lie one step removed from the characters who are actually in it.

Memento

Courtesy of: Warner Bros.

A theme that is present in nearly all of his films is the “good lie”: a character will lie if it makes life better for them or others. While the motivations and scale of the lies may vary with each film, they are always a key part of the puzzle-box experience. Nolan practically spells this out for us in The Prestige when Michael Caine explains the appeal of a magic show (and by extension the movies): “You’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.”

Certainly, on the surface is the suggestion that real life is drudgery, but the idea goes beyond simple escapism. Nolan, in being so honest about lying, is saying that reality itself is constructed on ideals and beliefs. This creates an interesting dichotomy because while his characters are portrayed as realistically as possible the worlds they inhabit, deliberately, are not.

Take Memento as an example. The film follows Leonard, who is on the hunt to find the person responsible for his wife’s death. Following a terrible accident, Leonard cannot form new memories that last longer than 15 minutes. To solve the case Leonard has to rely on a subjective patchwork reality made up of photos, notes, and clues received from other people. To reflect Leonard’s experience, half the film runs backwards chronologically. Despite the bizarre structure of Leonard’s world, it doesn’t take us long to make sense of it and eventually sit quite comfortably within it. This is the puzzle-box at play: watching the story inspires us to reflect on how we, too, construct reality. Everything we take as fact (indeed, everything we know) was taught to us by someone or was read in a book, or seen in a film. Indeed, the further back we go to discover the source of truth the more impossible it becomes to divorce it from opinion or other external influences.

Memento’s “good lie” is revealed in a twist ending. Leonard has already found and killed the man he thought murdered his wife. The “clues” he’s been following are from a separate case that Leonard chose to believe were related to his (and then forgot). Leonard’s reality is this case; without it, he would have nothing. Leonard’s lie allows him to stay in a place where he has purpose. This is Nolan’s philosophy: in reality the truth isn’t good enough, so we choose the worlds we want to live in.

Nolan’s greatest strength is in communicating big, unconventional ideas. Often this is achieved with unconventional structure or plot points, but at the cost of developing the story. Consider how Dunkirk’s structure affects the audience’s experience versus how it affects the characters’ experience (none at all). The results prove divisive. Many leave the cinema impressed that Nolan pulled off another clever cinematic trick, while others leave feeling emotionally estranged from the story they were just told. Before continuing, it is worth remembering that it is possible to satisfy both.

Kyung-gu Sol as Yong-ho in Peppermint Candy

Courtesy of: Tartan Cinema

Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy was released in 1999, the year before Memento, and offers an interesting counterpoint to Nolan’s philosophy. The film opens with ex-cop Yong-ho taking his own life. It then reveals the events leading up to his suicide in reverse chronological order, gradually moving backwards through twenty years of Korean history. Lee’s film is the opposite of Nolan’s; the structure is not designed to be puzzled through but to give a unique perspective of character development. The opening sequences reveal Yong-ho to be an inherently violent man, only to later reveal that he was forced into violence by fellow police officers, who in turn were expected to be violent by Korea’s military regime. This is just one example of character that gets expanded upon across the film’s duration. In the final sequence, Yong-ho is a teenager; his youth should be read as innocent but, given everything that is to come, it’s impossible not to see it as naïve. Furthermore, the final sequence takes place in the same location as the opening—a reminder that his death is inevitable.

Lee’s film highlights our problematic relationship with the past: namely that we cannot reflect on the past without the influence of the present. Peppermint Candy’s genius is in giving the audience an ever-widening and changing perspective as it reveals cycles of abuse and trauma. The film offers no escape to a more innocent time, only a more naïve time. However, thanks to a brutally honest investigation of the good and the bad in his past the audience understands something incredibly important. Even though the film opens with Yong-ho making the ultimate choice over his life, by the end it reveals that he was always subject to fate and never master of it. The audience leaves the film with a more complex perspective and a more emotionally resonant connection to Yong-ho than they ever would with Leonard.

Contrast that to one more important detail from Memento: Sammy Jankis. Leonard talks about investigating a man with a similar condition to his own; Sammy, through a tragic accident, kills his own wife. When Leonard’s good lie is revealed, and we know his world is constructed out of conscious delusions, that heavily implies that Sammy’s story is actually Leonard’s. Where Lee takes trauma as his starting point, Nolan uses this revelation to lock the puzzle box. All the plot threads are wrapped up nicely, but the man the audience have been learning to sympathise with for the last two hours is revealed to be a murderer; at that, one who will continue to murder if it means he doesn’t need to face up to his own guilt. And we’re left to examine our reaction to that on our own.

Memento 1

Credit: Entertainment One

Individually Nolan’s films nearly always have enough merit that it’s possible to overlook their flaws (no film is perfect). It’s once we start to notice the trend that things get complicated. For the sake of his magic secret Christian Bale (the more sympathetic lead in The Prestige) lies to his wife; the magic is a success but his gaslighting drives his wife to suicide. At the end of The Dark Knight Batman takes the fall for the corrupted Harvey Dent, turning him into a martyr so the undeserving people of Gotham can continue to live in happy ignorance.

It is impossible not to reflect on Nolan’s films without a contemporary perspective, and in the age of populist governments elected on ideals and fake news, his message just doesn’t sit right anymore. Following a summer of anti-racist protests, the world learned that it had been turning its back on the prejudice and inequality that’s rooted in society, sparking brutal, but honest, investigation. And the trouble is that none of Nolan’s films (so far) investigate the fallout of the good lie. Even though in The Dark Knight Rises Bane undoes Batman’s lie, that film ends with yet another lie: that Batman sacrificed himself to save Gotham (the exact same ending as The Dark Knight).

The social context of this isn’t Nolan’s fault; he is not master of time, but he is subject to it. Tenet may promise a return to normal, but we should remember that there is no going back. Nolan’s films are technical marvels, but their stories tend towards the ideal and stop short of crucial scrutiny—which could be why the end results leave a lot of us cold.