Masks, Memories, Dreamscapes: Nolan’s Delusional Heroes (pt. 1)

Christopher Nolan is a man obsessed with heroes who choose fantasy over reality. This proclivity didn’t only begin when he took on the task of rehabilitating the ailing Batman franchise by wrapping it with thick layers of realism, though it’s easily the most obvious place to start in this particular analysis: Nolan’s characters, beginning with Leonard Shelby and ending with Dom Cobb, all choose (to varying degrees) to entertain illusion in one fashion or another rather than confront the frequently harsh truths of their circumstances. Some of Nolan’s heroes make their decision out of selflessness. Some do so out of self-regard. All of them, motivations aside, take solace in their fantasies to avoid facing the world they exist in and reconciling the events and forces that lead them to self-delude in the first place.

Maybe the most obvious place is the best place to start. After all, Bruce Wayne hides behind a cape and cowl in his double-life as Batman, in which he sews terror throughout the criminal ranks of Gotham City to bring justice to a corrupt city. Taken at face value, Wayne more than any of Nolan’s characters directly makes the choice to shoulder the mantle of fantasy over accepting and dealing with reality. Wayne uses a very literal rather than figurative means of sheltering himself from the spiritual pain that dogs him: He dons a costume at night and fights crime as a vigilante, ostensibly in the name of avenging his deceased parents (whose deaths he witnesses firsthand as a child) and preventing such tragedies from befalling others. Of course, for all his good intentions (and they are, for the most part, noble) his moonlighting provides a convenient excuse for dodging the admittedly daunting task of overcoming the anguish that pushes him to risk his life night after night for the citizens of Gotham– as long as the billionaire playboy has Batman, after all, he has a means to escape his existence as Bruce Wayne and therefore avoid coping with and triumphing over his emotional pain. By the time the events of The Dark Knight unfold Batman appears to have become the dominant personality between the two, to the point where Wayne gives serious consideration to retiring from his work as a vigilante so that he can be himself again. (Which may signal that he’s finally ready to face his childhood trauma and lead a normal life at last.)

Inevitably the machinations of the chaotic and deranged Joker prevent Wayne from reaching this psychological and emotional catharsis, and leads to yet another illusion that Wayne/Batman elects to invent for the good of the public. Aided by Police Commissioner Gordon, he covers up the grim truth behind District Attorney Harvey Dent’s demise to preserve his image in the public eye by taking the fall for a rash of murders the maddened Dent himself carried out. In this case Wayne knows how much he’s deluding himself, but nonetheless he and Gordon together create a false construct to foist upon the people of Gotham. Put another way, they’re imposing their own narrative upon folks who are none the wiser. Admittedly, in this scenario it’s not Nolan’s hero but rather the background characters who accept the fantasy, but ultimately Wayne too must also accept it in order to perpetuate it– if he doesn’t believe in the lie, then he cannot reasonably expect anyone else to either.

Christian Bale, the man behind Bruce Wayne, has the distinction of bringing to life two of the delusional protagonists at the forefront of Nolan’s films, with the non-Batman oriented film being 2006’s The Prestige, in which he stars as a master magician who goes to enormous lengths to preserve the magic and the effect of his signature illusion. Much like Wayne, Alfred Borden lives a dual life; however, it’s one shared along with his twin brother. Both men alternate between being Alfred and assuming the identity of Fallon, Alfred’s engineer and assistant. Two men live the life of one; eventually their respective indulgences and character traits and behaviors begin to bleed over into each other’s lives. Fallon falls for Borden’s assistant, causing duress for Borden’s wife and ultimately culminating in her suicide. (It’s for this reason that perhaps more than the other heroes of Nolan’s cinema, Alfred’s adherence to his duplicitous path inflicts intense harm upon the people he cares about.)

In the case of The Prestige, Nolan’s protagonist shapes and molds his entire life around the magic trick that brings him the greatest success and notoriety of his career. His dedication to the act, quite simply, remakes the entire idea of his life into a fabrication; the very nature of his efforts to keep the secret behind his performance safe disallows Borden from ever fully living out his own life. Unlike Bruce Wayne, Borden’s reasons for committing himself to the conservation of his life-long lie are entirely selfish; perhaps we can admire his dedication to his craft but if so then we certainly cannot deny the egotistical essence of his actions.

If buying into fantasy over reality is a theme across Nolan’s work, then maybe it can be concurrently argued that selfishness drives the decision of many of his heroes to do so. After all, among each of these heroes, perhaps only Bruce Wayne can be attributed as having a purpose behind his self-delusion that isn’t strictly self-motivated; while his crusade against Gotham’s criminal element finds its inception in the brutal deaths of his parents, the fact remains that as Batman the tormented billionaire performs a great service to the citizens of the metropolis by making the city safer (that is of course until the Joker makes his presence felt). And if Bruce Wayne can be called the most altruistic of Nolan’s tragic heroes, then we can perhaps safely call not Borden but rather Will Dormer of Insomnia the most miserly. Borden, it’s true, pushed his lie so far as to cause the death of his own wife but prior to that at least his duplicity yielded a success that in turn yielded a better life for his family. Dormer’s egotism on the other hand benefits no one save himself.

Dormer’s conflict blooms during a fateful chase through thick Alaskan fog as he and his partner attempt to retrieve a fleeing suspect in a murder case they have been assigned to work. Seeing an armed figure through the obscuring mist, Dormer opens fire and finds that he has felled his partner instead of the killer; at this point, Dormer is guilty of no mere negligence, at least to outside eyes aware of his tension with his fellow detective. Dormer’s partner, we’re told, could potentially enable the shady officer’s downfall by reporting to Internal Affairs. The killing, therefore, appears to have motive, and later on Dormer admits that he’s not sure if the shooting was accidental or not. But up until that confession, Dormer fervently maintains the illusion initially founded by his peers: That the suspect killed Dormer’s partner, and not Dormer. The fabric of the appearance Dormer grasps onto slowly becomes unraveled through the efforts of rookie cop Ellie Burr, who idolizes him and his career, and Dormer spends the better part of the movie tormented and off-balance as he attempts to cover up his sin and successfully bring the conniving villain, Finch, to justice.

Dormer, however, receives a reprieve from the suffering he self-inflicts through his acceptance of the scenario assumed by his fellow police officers– unlike many of Nolan’s other heroes, who instead only perpetuate their individual ordeals through continued acceptance. Once Dormer concedes his guilt, he becomes free of it; while he receives an inevitably lethal wound in a gunfight with Finch, Dormer redeems himself by killing his enemy and advising the young Burr not to lose her way in the same manner as he when she offers to dispose of the evidence implicating him in his partner’s death. In other words, upon facing his delusion and conquering it, he finds himself relieved of the burden placed upon him by it, and he’s allowed to die having achieved peace of mind and spirit at last. Dormer’s narrative teaches us that the risk and difficulty of confronting one’s fantasy is worth the reward of no longer being a slave to its whims.

Next Time: Anterograde amnesia and dreams within dreams.

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3 thoughts on “Masks, Memories, Dreamscapes: Nolan’s Delusional Heroes (pt. 1)

  1. Insightful post Andrew! You can also make a point about Memento’s main character who arguably kills the person he WANTS to believe is the murderer of his wife rather than maybe, the real culprit.

    • Thank you kindly, Castor! And I agree completely– Leonard could very well just be fooling himself when he kills “John G.” and Teddy. But more on that in installment #2! (Soon to come! (Sort of! (I hope!)))

  2. Pingback: Criminology and Psychology | Private Investigating

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