‘Dunkirk’ Marks Christopher Nolan’s Final Break With His Early Mindf*ck Shtick

When I first became aware of Christopher Nolan, it was around 2000, as the director of that year’s most buzzed about indie mindf*ck, Memento. That was a film like we’d never seen — Guy Pearce covered in tattoos, playing a vengeance-obsessed widower who couldn’t form new memories; Joey Pants as the weaselly sidekick who might be a villain (his perfect role); Nolan using voiceover to flip a chase sequence mid-course. “Am I chasing him? …Nope, he’s chasing me.”

Weird that a guy who would eventually be accused of being humorless would introduce himself to the world with a scene so wry, isn’t it?

It’s probably fair to call Memento a gimmick movie, but it was damned good gimmick. And anyway, the fastest way to success when you’re a relative unknown is to show that you have 1. an identifiable style 2. that people like 3. that isn’t too hard for them to wrap their brains around. In other words, when you’re first starting out, it’s good to have a shtick. M. Night Shyamalan was the twist ending guy, Bobcat Goldthwait was the growly-voiced comedian, and Christopher Nolan, for all intents and purposes, was the mindf*ck guy.

He would be that for at least the next decade. Nolan made movies with plots that unrolled non-linearly, usually fractually, going forwards and backwards in time to eventually create a kind of infinity loop. This phase of his career arguably peaked with Inception, when Nolan’s meta-style was so easily imitated that it basically became a meme, bringing “snow level” and “braaaaaahm” into common usage. The film wasn’t Nolan doing something new; more the crystallization of Nolan doing what he’d always done. Even the original Memento poster looks like an Inception meme:

(sidenote for This Week In Posters readers: was this the poster that started the diagonal poster trend?)

Meanwhile, while we were busy watching him claim the mindf*ck mantel, a lesser-noticed aspect of his evolution was that he was gradually upgrading in his cinematography and set piece choreography. Early in his career, especially noticeable in Batman Begins and Insomnia, Nolan seemed to be great at everything except shooting a coherent fight sequence. The fights in Batman Begins seem to have been cobbled together using a thousand claustrophobic shots of characters’ blurry backs, ears, shoulders, lapels, etc. set to bang boom pow sound effects.

Frankly it was terrible, and it was a good thing Nolan was so good at keeping us distracted with fractal plotting. But by the time The Dark Knight Rises came out (or at least, by the time it hit DVD — most people were still so amped on The Dark Knight that they only realized the follow-up kind of sucked a few months after they’d seen it), it seemed fairly clear to everyone that his signature style of relentless narrative had gotten stale. The trouble with a shtick is that people tend to lose interest the minute they think they can define it. Shticks tend to pop and fade, with nothing left to discover on return visit.