Nolan’s films revel in the mys­te­ri­ous

Austin American-Statesman - - MOVIES&LIFE -

A s the re­lease of to­day’s much-an­tic­i­pated “In­cep­tion” grew closer over the past few weeks, more and more buzz sur­round­ing Christo­pher Nolan’s new film concerned just how lit­tle was known about it.

For a ma­jor stu­dio pic­ture, we have heard sur­pris­ingly lit­tle about the plot. Trail­ers, which usu­ally re­veal so much about a block­buster that you feel you’ve al­ready seen it, have of­fered only the most enig­matic scraps of ac­tion and mood.

But look back through Nolan’s fil­mog­ra­phy, all of which is avail­able on DVD (even his early short “Doo­dle­bug,” in­cluded on

an an­thol­ogy called “Cin­ema 16: Bri­tish Short Films”), and this shroud of mys­tery comes to look less like a mar­ket­ing gim­mick than the fulfillment of Nolan’s all-con­sum­ing artis­tic agenda. This is a filmmaker deeply wound up in the con­struc­tion, ex­plo­ration and ex­ploita­tion of se­crets.

Nolan’s are not the “gotcha” se­crets of an M. Night Shya­malan twistathon. Though he oc­ca­sion­ally does shock us at a movie’s end, those rev­e­la­tions only come as part of tales in which the whole mood is per­vaded by mys­tery, the puz­zle-like con­struc­tion tells us ex­plic­itly that we’re cir­cling some­thing hid­den.

This is most true of 2000’s “Me­mento,” which was a sen­sa­tion when it played at the South by South­west Film Fes­ti­val. Nolan’s main­stream break­through ra­tioned in­for­ma­tion more strictly than a nurse dis­pens­ing habit­form­ing pain med­i­ca­tion. The scenes of the brain­teas­ing who­dun­nit are ar­ranged in re­verse or­der, so that we know no more about the plot than the hero, whose brain in­jury has made him in­ca­pable of form­ing new mem­o­ries.

“Me­mento” daz­zled movie­go­ers, but it wasn’t ac­tu­ally Nolan’s de­but. A cou­ple of years ear­lier, he made “Fol­low­ing,” a low-bud­get but im­pres­sively as­sured neo-noir re­volv­ing around voyeurism, de­cep­tion and stalk­ing. Like the would- be writer at the story’s cen­ter, who picks strangers at ran­dom and covertly ob­serves them, we find our­selves form­ing in­ad­e­quate the­o­ries about the story based on the spotty clues the film­mak­ers give us. The short black-and-white film might be a wind-up for “Me­mento” but it’s no throw­away. If you can’t find it at your fa­vorite video store, it can be bought on­line for un­der $6.

Lit­tle needs to be said to ex­plain the di­rec­tor’s the­matic in­ter­est in his two biggest mon­ey­mak­ers, “Bat­man Be­gins” and “The Dark Knight” (both on disc from Warner Bros.). More even than other se­cret-iden­tity su­per­heroes, the Caped Cru­sader is driven by what is hid­den within his past and suc­ceeds by dint of stealth and in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The vast, hid­den reaches of the Bat­cave are one of pop cul­ture’s most evoca­tive metaphors for the mys­ter­ies we might un­lock within our­selves if only we could ac­cess and ex­plore our sub­con­scious minds.

Less ubiq­ui­tous than the Bat­man films were Nolan’s two other stu­dio fea­tures to date, 2002’s “In­som­nia” and 2006’s “The Pres­tige.” The for­mer, which was rere­leased this week on Blu-ray, re­makes a Nor­we­gian thriller in which a de­tec­tive’s need to con­ceal his trou­bled past hin­ders his pur­suit of a killer in the land of the mid­night sun. The lat­ter, about ri­val ma­gi­cians in the 19th cen­tury, is so ob­sessed with sleight-of-hand and mis­di­rec­tion that it takes its very name from the lingo of the­atri­cal trick­sters.

Crit­ics in­clined these days to tar Nolan as an au­teur too re­liant on flash and ef­fects should take an­other look at “In­som­nia,” where he coaxes strong, sub­tle per­for­mances out of two men (Al Pa­cino and Robin Wil­liams) whose act­ing styles had grown al­most mock­ably un­sub­tle over the years. We’ll learn this week­end whether Nolan’s lat­est ef­fort can find room within its mys­te­ri­ous, mind-bend­ing premise for old-fash­ioned good act­ing and di­rec­tion — but ex­pe­ri­ence says we can count on its be­ing a mys­tery worth the ef­fort to de­ci­pher.


Al Pa­cino and Robin Wil­liams were great in Christo­pher Nolan’s ‘In­som­nia.’

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