Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker with many interests. He seems to have an affinity for male characters motivated by the death of their wife, intricate plots that mess with narrative, big set-pieces and the use of the IMAX format. But mostly, he keeps coming back to one single idea: the way time and lies shape a person. For Nolan, and more importantly, his characters, few things are as impactful to shaping a person’s life than deception and the passage of time.
In his movies, characters are constantly lying about their lives, or living in a lie told by someone else. Over time, these lies escalate and usually end up destroying the character’s life. Now that Nolan is back with Tenet, a movie that is all about time and breaking down the concept of time, allow us to assess the Nolan characters who lost the most to these twin concepts: time and deception.
Spoilers follow for the Nolan films discussed.
Detective Will Dormer (Insomnia)
Becomes unable to sleep due to his own guilt, and then dies
Nolan’s third feature film has a strange place in the filmmaker’s canon, as his only remake of a pre-existing film. Insomnia follows Al Pacino as Will Dormer, a detective investigating a murder in a remote Alaskan town where the sun doesn’t set. Throughout the film, we discover Dormer isn’t as clean as he appears to be, constantly planting evidence in order to get convictions and covering the accidental murder of his partner because it looks suspiciously like murder.
Nolan directly ties Dormer’s insomnia to his guilt over killing his partner, and playing with the never-ending summer sun to rob Dormer of any chance of distancing himself from his sin. The longer he stays awake, the longer the days seem to drag, the more heavily Dormer’s remorse weighs on him. Though he doesn’t mess too much with timelines, Nolan still plays with the notion of time, making it seem like one particularly long day won’t end until Dormer confronts his guilt, until he finally gets consumed by it in the moment he is killed.
Robert Angier (The Prestige)
Obsession with a magic trick leads to him cloning and killing himself over and over
In many ways, The Prestige is the key to understanding Nolan’s work: a film that is about showmanship, playing with the perception of time and the way we lie to ourselves. This time, Nolan explores this from the perspective of rival stage magicians at the end of the 19th century, and how much they shape their lives around lies used on the stage. Robert Angier, one of the two protagonists, spends the entire movie trying to discover the secret to his rival’s greatest trick and destroys his identity in the process.
After his rival, Albert Borden, causes the accidental death of Angier’s wife, Angier spends years sabotaging his rival’s tricks and even permanently injuring him, while Borden does the same to him. Ultimately, Angier discovers his own ultimate magic trick, a move that involves cloning himself every night and killing his double. Nolan spends much of the film making us relive several key moments in both men’s lives from different perspectives, showing us the lengths each man went to in order to destroy the other. Angier did become a great magician, but he spends the entire film obsessing over another man’s life, ignoring his own and succumbing to the obsession until he literally destroys himself on stage for the applause.
Bruce Wayne (The Dark Knight trilogy)
Lies about Harvey Dent’s death, his retirement allowing Bane to take over Gotham
Batman’s entire existence is based on an ever-growing lie: that he is definitely not Bruce Wayne, why do you ask? Though Bruce Wayne is a pathological liar, his biggest sin is lying about Harvey Dent’s acts in The Dark Knight in order to paint him as a saint instead of revealing him as a murderer. This resulted in the passing of the “Dent Act” which allowed the police to wipe out organized crime. But it also resulted in Talia al Ghul and Bane taking over Gotham City.
The Dark Knight trilogy is Nolan’s biggest exploration of lies and the way they shape people. Everyone from Gordon, to Harvey Dent, to even Alfred lie about something—usually to protect someone they love, but ultimately impacting them for the worse. Alfred lying to Bruce about Rachel choosing Harvey over him turned Bruce into a recluse, preferring to live 8 years alone in his house because he lost hope in a future where he’d be happy. In those 8 years, the lie Bruce told about Harvey cleaned the streets of Gotham, sure, but it forced the villains to escalate to with bigger weapons. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane doesn’t take Gotham with the gasoline, matches and a lot of chaos deployed by the Joker—but with a nuclear bomb that can obliterate Gotham.
Dom Cobb (Inception)
Spends decades trapped in limbo with his wife, which drives her to suicide
Inception took Nolan’s obsession with time from Memento and The Prestige and brought it to new heights, presenting a film that is as grand as it is full of convoluted exposition to distract the audience from its magic trick. At the center of it is Cobb, a master thief who is constantly wrestling with the nature of his reality, checking his spinning top totem in case he’s still trapped in a dream, all while being haunted by the memory of his deceased wife.
Nolan frames time as a construct relative to the depth of our dreams. The deeper you go, the more slowly time flows, and the more difficult it becomes to escape. As we find out late in the film, Cobb spent nearly 50 years living inside a dream world he built with his wife, becoming increasingly detached from reality. They grew old together, while only about 5 hours passed in the real world. When they finally got back, they barely recognized the world around them, including their children, whom they hadn’t interacted with for decades in their eyes. More than any of his other movies, Inception sees Nolan diluting and stretching time in service of an emotional story. Cobb doesn’t seem to regret his time in limbo, and he admits to having had a great time (for the most part) growing old with his wife. The problem is that the experience was an illusion, and it’s only been a couple of hours in the real world, where his children are waiting.
Not only does Cobb lose decades of his perception of life, he is also responsible for his wife’s death, as he inadvertently implanted a simple idea in her mind that took over her: that her reality was an illusion. Though not really a lie in and of itself, Cobb wasn’t honest about the fact that he planted the idea himself, and it not only consumed his wife, but nearly destroyed Cobb’s life too. By the end of the film, the audience is left wondering if Cobb is finally in the real world, or if it’s all a dream. The real answer is that it took Cobb years, but he’s finally embraced his new reality, whatever its true nature.
Alfred Borden/Bernard Fallon (The Prestige)
Literally lives only half a life
The other protagonist of The Prestige is actually two people: twin brothers who shared absolutely everything, including an identity. In order to perfect a magic trick, the two brothers begin sharing the public identity of Alfred Borden, with the other twin posing as Borden’s assistant, Bernard Fallon. This means they both share a wife, whom only one of them loves, share injuries (like cutting off a finger), and generally commit so much to the act that it becomes the truth.
In the end, the lie becomes so big, and the brothers are so obsessed with keeping it a secret, that they refuse to reveal the truth even when one of them is sentenced to death. Nolan understands the power of a lie and, more importantly, the way it festers like a wound and takes over its host over time. Borden doesn’t lie to himself, but he lies to everyone else in his life, driving his wife to suicide and letting his daughter believe her father died even though it was really her uncle.
Joseph Cooper (Interstellar)
Loses 23 years of his life to time dilation after embarking on a journey based on a lie
As Brandon Katz wrote in his piece about Nolan and how time affects his characters, “Nolan’s time trickery turns a uniquely tangible phenomenon into the very character his films revolve around.” His characters experience time non-linearly and that greatly affects their psyche. If Cobb growing old over 50 years only to return to a much younger body messed him and his wife up, then having 23 years of your life pass you by in a manner of hours is sure to cause some long-lasting impact on your psyche.
For years, Nolan has been obsessed with the intersection between time and white lies, how a well-intentioned lie can turn on you with unforeseen results. The plot of Interstellar kick-starts with a very well-intentioned lie: that humans can escape Earth before it becomes uninhabitable and propel colonies into space as long as we find a new home for them. The idea of returning home to his family and helping them get off the planet is the only thing that convinces former NASA pilot Joseph Cooper to venture out into space—and finding out that it was all based on a lie makes him desperate enough to fly a spaceship into a black hole to try and return home. Though we don’t see Cooper go through as big a change over time due to the lie as we see Cobb or Bruce Wayne—because no time has passed from his perspective—we do get one of Nolan’s most emotional scenes because of it. He discovers a quick expedition caused him to lose 23 years of his life and realizes he missed watching his kids grow up, as well as the death of his father-in-law and his own grandson.
Nolan isn’t only interested in having his characters go through change, but he is interested in making them go through traumatic events involving time itself. It’s not enough that Cooper is away from his family and missed important moments, but that he did so while not aging a single day. At the end of the film, Cooper realizes he’s become a ghost to humanity, a middle-aged father saying goodbye to his elderly daughter.
Leonard Shelby (Memento)
Gets stuck in an endless loop of vengeance with no memory of it
Nolan weaponizes our fear of time. Of it passing by, of it ending, of it becoming blurry with old age. But his second feature, Memento weaponized it in a way no other film of his has done: by taking away time’s ability to let us heal from past traumas. Leonard Shelby is a man obsessed with finding the man who raped and murdered his wife, he also has no memories—his brain essentially resets every few minutes, trapping him in the moment of trauma.
The film ends with the huge revelation that Leonard has already found the man he deems responsible (though it may be just him projecting his guilt onto someone else, as Leonard may have been responsible for his wife’s death too) and killed him, he just forgot. Nolan frames the film as a noir-like investigation, with the audience trying to unravel the mystery Leonard himself is investigating, all while presenting us the solution from the beginning, just in reverse. Leonard, unlike Nolan’s other protagonists, is doomed to never be able to escape his trauma. Instead, Leonard clings to the sense of control his murder investigation gives him, even if it means he’ll never be able to move past his trauma. He is doomed to repeat his search for a fake villain over and over, without any real catharsis.
NOLAN/TIME is a series exploring how we’ve watched the clock in Christopher Nolan’s films.