Parallel Identity Crisis in Christopher Nolan’s Memento and The Prestige
We all need mirrors to remind ourselves of who we are. (Memento, pg 119)
Nothing easy about two men sharing one life. (The Prestige, pg 124)
Following in the grand tradition of film noir, rising auteur Christopher Nolan tells stories of light and dark overlapping, coloring the normally clear-cut notions of heroes and villains in morally ambiguous shades of gray (even those stories that are traditionally painted with comic book colors). At the heart of these tales are men that struggle to reconcile their conflicting natures, enacted in “a tug of war… between two modes of being”, and forge identities that may be nothing more than lies invented to appease their consciences (Garcia 88). In this essay, I examine how Nolan’s thematic thread of splintered personalities (a thread which weaves its way through six feature films) subverts the audience’s desire to identify with a noble protagonist. Of his entire body of work, I choose here to specifically focus on two films: his breakthrough hit Memento (2000) starring Guy Pierce, and the period piece The Prestige (2006) starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.
Before I examine the work, I must consider the man behind it. Nolan himself occupies two worlds: Great Britain and America, between which he has lived and worked his entire life. His dual citizenship brings with it an English education and a deep love for American films, his work reflecting both a cool London formalism and a fierce Chicago spirit. These two disparate cultural identities are not at war with each other, rather they peacefully inform his art and, one can speculate, his life. He proves adept at nurturing the “indie” creative impulse even within the massively budgeted Hollywood machine, the backbone of good story sense and emotional weight thrown in with the explosions and chase scenes of action spectacle. I consider him an auteur in that he manages to show consistent style and thematic cohesiveness from the micro-budgeted Following (his feature debut) to his $200+ million Batman pictures, which he accomplishes by overseeing every aspect of production. Of his six films, five were screenplays he wrote, co-wrote, and/or adapted, the sole exception being Insomnia (a remake scripted by Hillary Seitz), which Nolan nevertheless makes all his own. The protagonists of his films are men with a sense of morality taxed by the cruel realities of an often-unjust world: murder, rape, and deep-seated rivalry wreck their once stable lives. In response, the personality schism begins; they often step outside the boundaries of the law, testing our allegiances to them, while still retaining a level of audience empathy.
Leonard Shelby (Guy Pierce), the protagonist of Memento, is the quintessential Nolan anti-hero: resourceful and sympathetic, but also ruthless and on unsteady moral ground. His every action is aimed to avenge his wife, who was raped and murdered in their home during a break-in. This same incident permanently injured Leonard’s brain, denying him the ability to produce new memories. Relying on his own instincts and an array of informational tattoos decorating his body, Leonard seeks to track down the mysterious John G, and extract bloody vengeance for the crimes against himself and his wife. The tragic circumstances ally us with Leonard’s quest, the unique plot structure (events are shown in reverse order) emulates his fractured perceptions, and the mise en scène (with virtually no establishing shots, and many close-ups) places us squarely within his interior life. Throughout the film, Leonard fights to reconcile the man he once was (ahappily married San Francisco insurance claims investigator), with theman he’s become (a one-track Los Angeles vigilante). Flashbacks showhim in jeans and flannel, present day sequences find him in an expensive suit, driving a Jaguar. With his memory fragmented and mixed up, Leonard is a mystery to himself, and he draws on the story of Sammy Jankis, a similarly affected man from his investigative past, because it “helps [him] understand [his] own situation” (Nolan 16). The comparisons he makes between their lives serve to elevate his sense of self, with his superior method of organization, and of the “drive” inherent in his revenge, which he states Sammy lacked. In reality, Sammy is merely Leonard’s own personal cipher.
In the climactic scene of the film’s reverse narrative, cop Teddy Gammell (Joe Pantoliano) pokes holes through Leonard’s perception of truth. Leonard’s wife survived the attack, he claims, only to be killed when Leonard accidentally injected her with an overdose of insulin, an episode earlier attributed to Sammy and his wife. Insert cuts of two alternative realities break into the scene as Leonard ponders the possibility that he is the killer he seeks: one shot shows him playfully pinching his wife’s thigh, an identical shot replaces the pinch with a needle. With this subversion of the conventions of screen information (the “principles of narrative construction”), the audience is asked to question all that we’ve seen before (Bordwell, Thompson ch. 3). Teddy’s further revelation of multiple John G. victims holds a mirror up to the ugly truth, leading us to reevaluate Leonard not as a justified hero, but as a misled killer.
Pushing the themes of revenge and conflicting identities even further is The Prestige, in which magicians Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Borden (Christian Bale) forge an ongoing rivalry with deadly consequences. The backdrop of 19th century stage magic illustrates the dichotomy of performers: the public persona and the private, and where the two intersect. In his search for the perfect illusion, Borden suggests that one must sublimate that private life in service of the act. “Utter self-sacrifice,” he outlines to Angier, “It’s the only way to escape this” (21). The two often spend time behind masks and disguises, always hiding their true identities, never being completely open with the people in their respective lives. Angier, we are told, changed his name before embarking on his theatrical career; Borden’s past is even more mysterious. These unsure origins make them not entirely reliable as narrators, and their obsessive and often-destructive behaviors bring our sympathies for them into question time and time again. In a water-escape trick gone terribly wrong, Angier’s wife is killed, and he blames Borden, who was responsible for tying the ropes around her wrists. As Borden writes in his journal, “How often I’ve fought with myself over that night. One half of me swearing blind that I tied a simple slipknot; the other half convinced that I tied the Langford double” (29). The name of the fatal knot is not arbitrarily chosen; rather it’s a representation of the conflict that arises from two separate identities fighting for dominance. In Borden’s case, this is a conflict of flesh and blood: as the film’s final moments reveal, Alfred Borden is a persona enacted by a pair of identical twins. With this knowledge in mind, a reviewing of the film makes it easy to detect when each brother takes the dominant role: the distinctions in each personality (one cool and collected, the other more brash and impulsive), subtly rendered, are a testament to Bale’s performance and to the screenplay.
As with Memento, Nolan chooses to show his hand at the end of the narrative. The surviving Borden (the other brother hanged for a crime he did not commit) mortally wounds Angier, then reveals to him (and by extension the audience) the critical secret behind his greatest trick. Intercut with their conversation, we see flashbacks of earlier scenes: some fleshed out to provide new information, others reiterated and colored by our awareness of the “prestige”, the final piece of the puzzle. Disguises are passed between the brothers; one’s hand is mutilated to match the injury of the other’s. The terrible reality of a man, divided in two, attempting to live one life is made as apparent as ever: the complications, the hardships, and the questionable moral choices one must make to maintain equilibrium. As long as these fractured personalities continue to fascinate and move audiences, Christopher Nolan will be there to “fool” us with the illusory art of cinema.
Nolan, Christopher, and Nolan, Jonathan. Memento: Adapted Screenplay. 2000.
Nolan, Christopher, Nolan, Jonathan, and Priest, Christopher. The Prestige: Adapted Screenplay. 2006
Garcia, J. L. A. “White Nights of the Soul: Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia and the Renewal of Moral Reflection in Film.” Logos. 9:4 (2006): 82-117
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, The, 2003. 77.