Just over 20 years ago, Christopher Nolan and Charlie Kaufman became certified movie revolutionaries, behind the camera and the typewriter. Then after “Memento” and “Being John Malkovich” shook many a critic and fanbases, the likes of “Adaptation,” “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Inception,” “Anomalisa” and more made Nolan and Kaufman two of the leading cinematic voices of the 21st century. Unfortunately, the limits of their power may have started to show, at the dawn of the new decade.
20 years ago, Nolan and Kaufman were among the most original voices of their time, and many would still argue that “Tenet” and “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things” continue to prove that. However, a closer look at both lays bare another perspective – that these formerly original voices are on the brink of becoming predictable and unwilling or unable to adapt to the times.
MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR TENET, I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS AND MORE FOLLOW
It is common to deride Nolan and his movies for being cold, emotionless, and more concerned with mind tricks than actual humanity. Ironically enough, “Tenet” being every one of those things actually does the most to prove how wrong that is – at least when it comes to the Nolan of old. No matter how gimmicky the likes of “Memento,” “The Prestige,” “Inception” and “Interstellar” were, those tricks, mysteries, and oddities were almost always rooted in the struggles, battles, and even emotions of its characters. In fact, “Tenet’s” commitment to keeping most of its lead characters at arm’s length throughout only highlights what a miracle “Inception” was in doing the exact opposite, even as the dream levels and totems piled up and spun on.
Every confounding twist, revelation, and unanswered question in “Inception” worked in service of Dom Cobb’s journey through his haunted, fractured mind and past, not the other way around. 10 years earlier, every time inversion in “Memento” serviced Leonard Shelby’s journey to sort out his own fractured mind as well. “Interstellar” also bent over backward to prove love and family made intergalactic travel and messages from the future possible, although it opened Nolan up to more mockery than he was used to back then. It now appears that response to Nolan’s most blatant attempt at an emotion-driven story scared him into rejecting the very idea of emotional, character-driven stories altogether. It wasn’t a problem in “Dunkirk,” as Nolan’s visual and audio wonder in putting audiences inside the Dunkirk evacuation made up for not defining most of the characters there. Even there, he still had moving scenes on Mark Rylance’s boat to fill in the character gaps on land and in the air.
“Tenet” uses the same formula, as it trusts the spectacle of ‘inversion’ – especially on big screens that haven’t been used in months – will make up for the lack of depth and connection to the characters being flung backward and forwards in time. It also trusts that one more outwardly emotional subplot will make up for neglecting the others, yet Elizabeth Debicki has to fight tooth and nail with Nolan’s recurring lack of imagination for female characters – the ones he doesn’t outright kill, anyway – to come close to pulling it off for him. She at least gets a better shot than Nolan’s actual Protagonist and his partner Neil, who are made to be far less interesting than the actors who play them and the post-movie theories about them. But that sadly makes sense for a film that has absolutely stunning visual tricks, yet lacks both the provocative big picture ideas and the character-driven ideas Nolan’s old tricks also had.
In the olden times of seven months ago, seeing those tricks on the biggest screen possible still would have been enough on some level. However, for a movie and director that insists it’s worth risking your life to see it in a massive, possibly pandemic-infected theater, it needed a lot more to make it remotely close to a palatable sell. Nolan’s inability to let the pandemic budge “Tenet’s” rollout may have permanently soured him to some critics. Sadly, when it comes to someone less interested these days in movies where emotion, humanity, heart, and consideration for people get in the way of massive theatrical spectacle, it might make all too much sense to believe a pandemic and his audience’s safety are secondary concerns to him. That may not be the whole truth, but Nolan didn’t have to make a possibly shark-jumping case that it was, accidentally or not. Likewise, he didn’t need to go so far to prove all the digs about him and his movies being cold and emotionless were right all along. They still weren’t entirely right then, but they are threatening to be now.
The Nolan who used to break the mold in every way, in both big and small movies, is now threatening to be a distant memory. He may still be capable of showing up in a few massive sequences here and there, but that means less and less if he isn’t using his other gifts to support them anymore. If he doesn’t change that soon, Nolan himself will start to mean less and less where it really counts, no matter what visuals he thinks can compensate for it next. Yet even as Nolan exposed his decreased ability to keep being truly original in theaters, it has nothing on how fellow turn-of-the-century auteur Kaufman shot himself in the foot on Netflix mere days later.
“I’m Thinking Of Ending Things” turns out far more tragic than the stumbles of Nolan and “Tenet,” because it made itself look like the anti-“Tenet” for 120 minutes. Unlike Nolan, Kaufman presented a gigantic, confusing mind puzzle that still rooted itself in a real character’s mental and emotional struggle. Unlike Nolan, Kaufman presented an ever-changing reality that came from relatable human turmoil, not just from a need to show off weird visual tricks. And while both Nolan and Kaufman presented central protagonists that weren’t white men for the first time ever – and didn’t have real names either – Kaufman appeared far more committed to telling a complete story about a protagonist unlike any he’d written before. Until he revealed all that – and so many other things “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things” appeared to be about – was a lie.
This view is from someone who didn’t read Iain Reid’s original novel, and who didn’t already know that Jessie Buckley’s original protagonist is completely made up by Jesse Plemons’ real protagonist. It is also from someone who didn’t figure that out until the last 5-10 minutes when others probably caught on much sooner. But until then, at least in my mind, everything pointed to “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things” being an examination of a woman – whether old, young, mentally fragile or otherwise – enduring and/or looking back at the various elements of her toxic relationship. It appeared to examine a female mind struggling to come to terms with how she got there, being unable to see where she ended and her boyfriend began anymore, and perhaps wishing for a way out long after it was possible in reality. Even at a late point where she encounters the older, non-Plemons version of her boyfriend and witnesses an “Oklahoma” – themed deadly ballet involving his younger and older selves, it is still easy to think the story, its tragic observations, and its bizarre settings are from her point of view.
That alone would have made it different from all other Kaufman stories. That alone would have shown a Kaufman who was willing to consider other minds and perspectives separate from his own. That alone could have proven Kaufman was willing to keep growing and changing, like the highly original mastermind he’s made himself look like for the last 20 years. Yet in one fell swoop, a new and daring Kaufman story became his umpteenth examination of a sad-sack, mediocre, self-destructive white guy, instead of a story 100 times more interesting when it seemed to be about something – or someone – else. And in one fell swoop, it became impossible to ignore anymore that for all his mind-bending stories, the Kaufman filmography at its core is largely the same story of naval-gazing inside a mediocre white guy’s mind over and over again. This was much easier to forgive in far more powerful and poignant movies, and in movies that didn’t appear to promise something far different until they showed themselves as the same old, same old behind all the mind games. As such, if “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things” the novel had actually been from a woman’s perspective the whole time, it’s harder to imagine Kaufman would have ever adapted it. For all his talk later about how he made certain parts of the ending more open to interpretation than the book, he changed little if anything at the center of the core climactic twist – despite how that twist changes and possibly ruins the impact of what came before.
Like Nolan with “Tenet,” what Kaufman ultimately does with “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things” is he makes one of his old masterpieces look even better by comparison. In this case, its “Being John Malkovich,” which was actually ahead of its time in 1999 in treating a loser “Nice Guy” male lead like the selfish sociopath he often is deep down, especially in having longtime typecast “Nice Guy” John Cusack play him. But that film also did justice to not one but two female characters. It was also ahead of its time in suggesting that two females in a love triangle are better off falling in love with each other, and was perhaps ahead of its time in being a parable for the transgendered, intentional or not. At every turn, Kaufman presented a story that was either brand new or examined through relatively new perspectives and ideas by 1999 standards. By 2020 standards, however, “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things” is only really original for 120 out of 130 minutes, before revealing the previous 120 minutes perhaps weren’t all that original either.
In the span of a week, two of the most supposedly daring and creative voices of the last 20 years have exposed some rather crippling ruts. 20 years ago, they broke all the rules placed in front of them, and now they’ve made themselves look unwilling or incapable of breaking their own in order to become fully new again. This is a time where audiences are clamoring for mold-breaking movies and creators like never before, although their standards for that are different than 20 years ago. That works against Nolan since his style has spawned a grim & dark era of blockbuster filmmaking and toxic fandom – not just in DC circles – that many audiences outside of Nolan’s fanbase are still urging Hollywood to move on from. And it works against Kaufman since the last thing a lot of viewers want to see these days are endless stories about failed white men who fantasize and conjure up women more than they truly understand them.
In many ways, “Tenet” and “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things” are likely to make some wish Nolan and Kaufman had “read the room” and realized much of today’s world doesn’t need storytelling this stuck in the past anymore, no matter how cutting edge their visual gimmicks are. No one could have dared accuse the 1999 and 2000 Kaufman and Nolan of that, yet the likelihood that the Nolan and Kaufman of that era haven’t grown to the same extent some of their audiences have in 20+ years is their entire problem now. It may be a testament to their power that it took until 2020 for this to be a much bigger problem.
The Nolan and Kaufman of old certainly aren’t dead yet, as the most stunning sights of “Tenet” and the majority of what “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things” appeared to be proved. However, hoping for mere glimpses of their formerly provocative selves is certainly a step down. If even those glimpses of the old Nolan and Kaufman won’t go as far as they used to, then for the first time in over 20 years, we may need to ask how much we really need them, compared to how much we need different types of masterminds to be allowed to tell their own reality-bending stories. If these masters no longer can or won’t do more with their big ideas than make them look cool – and if they can’t or won’t commit in full to seeing them through truly new, different eyes and perspectives – then for the first time in over 20 years, we may need to ask if we’ve outgrown them.
You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @robertdoc1984