Christopher Nolan’s Dead Women

In at least four of Christopher Nolan’s seven feature films, the plots and/or fixations are initiated or propelled by the death of a man’s spouse or girlfriend. Considering that Nolan’s primary thematic interest is obsession, isn’t this a little strange?

The realization struck me the day I saw Inception, in which everything Cobb does involves “being with” his dead wife Mal or being reunited with his kids, from whom he’s separated because of how Mal died. She leaped from a window, but Cobb feels (and is) responsible. Cobb also convinced her to lay down in front of a train in their “limbo” world.

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In The Dark Knight, the Joker kills Rachel Dawes — Harvey Dent’s girlfriend and Bruce Wayne’s love interest — facilitating the creation of Two-Face. Both Batman and Dent, of course, feel (and are) responsible.

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In The Prestige, the accidental death of Angier’s wife (because of the way Borden tied a knot) fuels an escalating rivalry between the two magicians. This was (if I recall correctly) an element of the novel on which Nolan’s movie was based, but he chose to direct and co-write the film.

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And in Memento, Leonard Shelby is seeking revenge against his wife’s attacker, even though it was he who (accidentally) killed her.

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We might also note that the genesis of Insomnia’s plot is the murder of a high-school girl. (It’s a remake, but Nolan picked it, too.)

And Batman Begins has a dead mother, for those who want to attempt some Oedipal contortions.

(I haven’t seen Following — Nolan’s debut feature — in more than seven years, but I don’t remember a dead-woman motif in it.)

What are we to make of this?

It’s very possibly a writer’s crutch, a lazy shorthand way of creating in the audience an emotional connection to a central character, or of giving that character an easy motivation.

But there might be something else happening. I’m just not sure what it could be.

Nolan’s movies are uninterested in sex; these dead women seem romantic/life partners more than sexual ones. So I don’t think this is an indication of sexual obsession in the manner of De Palma or Ellroy. (The films could be so chaste because all the women are dead, or perhaps because Nolan aspires to that all-important-for-blockbusters PG-13 rating.)

It’s curious and a little troubling. Either Nolan is trying to work something out (and not doing a very good job of it, apparently), or he’s among the world’s least-imaginative screenwriters.

The latter charge is almost on-its-face absurd — Memento and Inception could only come from an inventive mind — so I’m left to wonder: Are there any unsolved murders in Nolan’s wake?

Hello? In all of Nolan’s films, dead men outnumber dead women.

Ray: That might be true, but I didn’t claim that dead women outnumber dead men. I said that there appears to be a trend in Nolan’s movies of dead women propelling the stories.

I believe the protagonist in Following was involved or being framed for the murder of someone’s girlfriend.

Alright, yes, the death of a man�s spouse is a reoccurring theme in Nolan’s movies. What of it? I don’t see any argument as to why any of this is a bad thing. What filmmaker doesn’t have particular narrative tropes that they’re interested in exploring?

Quinn: How is Nolan “exploring” the death of a spouse? You think he’s actually interested in that topic?

As I said in the piece, I’m not quite sure what to make of this. I simply thought it was worth pointing out.

In the weeks since I wrote it, though, I’ve become convinced that it’s a storytelling crutch used in lieu of creating unique, genuine characters. It’s lazy. Is that a bad thing? Ummm ... yes.

The website Women in Refrigerators documents this phenomenon in comic books.

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