Back in 1990, at the age of 5, I knew precisely when I needed to use the TV remote to pause the VHS of Batman (1989), directed by Tim Burton. At the moment the boardroom appeared, my mom would cover the television from view, protecting me from seeing Jack Nicholson's Joker electrocute another man until his head caught fire. I didn't know what I was missing at the time. I only knew that I wanted to see whatever darkness was being withheld from view.
Frankly, I'm not sure which came first: my love of Batman or my insatiable desire to make sense of life's darker shades. But what's certain is that both traits prefigure and explain my appreciation for director Christopher Nolan's neo-noir oeuvre, to which one more film—The Dark Knight Rises, the last of Nolan's Batman trilogy—will be added later this week.
Since 1998's Following, Nolan's films have been pervasively grim in both tone and content. But I find one particular element of this recurrent gloom most compelling—the sense in which this darkness is characteristically psychological. Nolan's films focus on persons who are, to varying degree, alienated and, as a result, rendered paranoid by their inhabitance of the alternate world that self-deceit produces. Nolan's characters are oft imprisoned inside themselves, in need of revelation and community. Desperate for a source of light, these characters often develop an irrational fear of life outside the mind. Their ability to perceive reality begins to deteriorate.
An unseen 'otherness'
In Nolan's first feature film, the black-and-white Following, the protagonist gains enjoyment tracking strangers from a distance. But when he becomes entangled with Cobb—a burglar also seemingly motivated by thrill and curiosity about human nature—he's soon caught up in an underworld rife with deceit. In the end of the film the protagonist, who has been enticed by the desire to steal intimate details from other persons without making himself known, is burned by his own game. "It's nothing personal," utters the lover who has spurned him (and who, herself, is ultimately spurned by Cobb, too). Nothing personal, indeed. It's the film's essential line (it's said more than once) and encapsulates the lurking evil that Cobb embodies, a stalking deceit that inspires paranoia in others about others, because it's an otherness that doesn't reveal itself.
Memento (2000), Nolan's first major feature and cult classic, builds on Following's non-linear approach (a recurring complement to Nolan's paranoia/darkness) by inviting the viewer into a puzzle that, on the first viewing, is never quite clear until the final scene. Lenny (Guy Pearce) wrestles with a psychological darkness that stems from finding his wife raped and murdered. That trauma renders him incapable of retaining memories for more than five minutes. Tragically, revenge is now the telos of Lenny's existence; armed with tattoos and sticky notes, he lives to avenge his wife's murder. Or does he? Even worse, with his memory issues, Lenny is incapable of forming a meaningful relationship. Has he been deceived? Has he deceived himself? Can he know? Due to the pain he's been dealt, Lenny has no problem giving himself a menacing purpose—one even more reckless than revenge.
In Insomnia (2002), Detective Dormer (Al Pacino) can't sleep. Partly because he's in Alaska's perpetual daylight investigating the murder of a teen girl, but mostly because he's haunted by the difficult, morally compromising decisions he's made during his career. Worse, Dormer accidentally shoots his partner while pursuing the killer, and then proceeds to cover up the incident. Only the killer knows his secret, but Dormer, by the very nature of his secrecy, confusedly inhabits the alternate reality produced by his lies. Is he no different now than the killer, who joins him in that alternate reality? "Murder was easy," the killer tells Dormer. "That reality doesn't exist outside our minds." Yet, Dormer can't seem to inhabit the alternate reality of deception without the consequence of increased self-delusion and paranoia.