Christopher Nolan has a reputation as a cold filmmaker. His movies are praised as ambitious, clever, well-crafted, and visually stunning, but they are often described as lacking in the emotional department. His work looks great, but it’s a little chilly, often leaving audiences at a slight emotional distance.
I believe this reputation is undeserved, and as Exhibit A in my argument, I bring you the climax of Inception. Welcome to my ongoing series on art that’s made me cry.
— Spoiler Warning for Inception —–
If you’ve never seen Inception, the story involves an unorthodox form of heist. Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is hired to invade the dreams of Robert Fischer, played by Cillian Murphy, the wealthy son of a powerful, but dying, corporate raider. The goal is not to steal something, but to plant something, specifically the idea to break up Robert’s father’s business monopoly. The planting of an idea is called “inception.”
The key to an inception is that it can’t be forced on a person. It is a subtle task. You can’t just bust into a person’s mind, graft on an idea, and call it a day. The idea has to be accepted. It has to arise as close to naturally as possible. You can plant the seed, but it must grow organically to truly take root in a person’s mind; otherwise it will be rejected. The trick, then, is to wrap the idea in something close to the person’s heart, something that they want, something that they find true.
What does Robert Fischer want? In an early scene, during the “heist research” part of the movie, we find out:
He wants his father’s love, a simple, straightforward motivation. And not for nothing, notice how quickly and efficiently this information is conveyed. In a scene that lasts barely a minute, we learn everything we need to know. We see that Robert’s father, Maurice—played by the excellent, sadly departed Pete Postlethwaite—is dying, and that he’s kind of a dick. Robert, meanwhile, is pining for just a little bit of affection from his father before the old man finally dies.
The history of their relationship is filled in by a single, powerful image, and their respective reactions to it. It is a photograph of father and son, sharing a (presumably rare) moment of tenderness together in Robert’s youth, as Robert holds a paper pinwheel. Robert clearly cherishes the memory, and has placed the photo by his father’s bedside. Maurice hasn’t even noticed it’s there.
Again, the scene is brief. It is a subplot, in a complicated movie filled with subplots. But now we know that father Maurice has never given his son the love and attention that children crave, and probably views him as weak. And to be fair, Robert probably is weak. But he loves his father, and wants to see that love returned, and his desire is now visually linked to the image in that photograph: a boy and a pinwheel.
The dream heist begins. Cobb’s team breaks into Robert’s subconscious, and is immediately beset by complications; everything goes wrong. But this article isn’t an Inception recap, so here’s the quick and dirty summary: With everything going haywire, Cobb and his team accomplish their mission by creating multiple dreams within dreams. This Russian nesting doll of dream-layers messes with time: with each layer down, time moves slower, and this grants the team the time they need to complete the mission.
At the climax of the film, the team is spread across multiple layers of dreams, and it’s time to wake up. The last member of the team, Tom Hardy’s Eames, leads Robert into the deepest level of the dream, where the inception will occur. The inception will be a locked room, with a locked safe, which Robert will subconsciously fill with his deepest desire. The scene unfolds:
Everything about this scene works. The acting is great. Cillian Murphy and Pete Postlethwaite are terrific at selling their reconciliation. Cillian Murphy’s grief just pours out of his eyes.
Hans Zimmer’s work on the film’s score is usually overshadowed by the famous “Bwaaamp!” that featured so heavily in the trailer for the film (and seemingly every other movie trailer for about a decade afterwards), but the score for the film is very good, and this scene is no exception.
As is so often the case in a Nolan film the editing is masterful. Inception is first and foremost an action movie, so here at its climax we have to keep up a sense of pace and adrenaline. And because this is a Nolan movie, there are several different timelines that are all now weaving together. The editing juggles all of this, weaving the timelines, pushing the action climax, but still granting this critical moment time to breathe. This is essential, because despite all of the action and gunplay and sci-fi dream shenanigans that led us to this moment, this is the actual climax of the film. This moment of emotional connection between father and son is the movie.
Which brings me back to the last thing that works about the scene, which is the visual imagery. Thanks to the groundwork laid by the earlier scene, and the image of the photograph, we in the audience know exactly what Robert is going to find when he opens that safe. The scene writes itself. He finds the symbol of what was missing from his life, the representation of his father’s love and respect. He finds a pinwheel.
So is Nolan a cold, distant film-maker? Certainly the movie doesn’t focus on the emotional elements; it’s a high-octane action thriller. But when the movie does hit those beats, it hits them well, and it moved me, enough that I got teary at the end of a high-octane action thriller. It could be that I’m just a sucker for touching moments of connection between fathers and sons. (Responding to the obvious question: Yes, my relationship with my dad is fine.) There are other moments in other films that affected me just as much (“Indiana…”), so I don’t know, maybe it’s a guy thing?
It doesn’t even matter to me that it’s a lie. Maurice never truly respects his son, or offers him that healing gesture. The entire scene is generated by Robert’s subconscious. Yet the fact is that Robert’s mind created what it needed to be made whole, and it succeeds. So is it a lie? Yes. But in that lie, a broken man was healed. And for me, that was enough to get weepy over.