Inception: Freud, the Abyss, and Clean Junkies

Written/Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, and Dileep Rao.
Rating: 4.5/5

In his poem “A Dream within a Dream,” Edgar Allan Poe’s speaker finds himself “amid the roar / of a turf-tormented shore,” ravaged by the thought that everything is but a dream inside another dream.  It is this same scene with which Christopher Nolan opens Inception: Dom Cobb is being pounded by waves in what we later learn is a dream four dreams deep.

In the West, our tradition of radical subjectivity starts off with Descartes and has run through into pop features like the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix (which famously used Baudrillard’s phrase “Welcome to the desert of the real”) and now to Nolan’s Inception, a marvellous play on this nagging dilemma of the nature of reality.

Cobb (DiCaprio) is an expert “extractor” – someone who constructs and then enters another’s dream world and steals secret information that the subject’s mind naturally places in secure places like vaults.  The main action of the movie is based around Cobb and his team not extracting but planting an idea in their target’s mind – Fischer’s – that he must break up the enormous corporate empire he is about to inherit.  This is done at the behest of Saito, who, if Fischer should dissolve his corporate energy empire, will rule the energy market. 

Downwards is the only way forward.

Inception is a Freudian’s wet dream of an action movie.  In one sense, this is a movie that owes everything to Freud – from the understanding of the layered subconscious to the father figure’s importance in determining dispositions towards religion, politics, and, in this case, capitalism.  Nolan places the father figure as the chief dilemma, the chief idea-shaper in Fischer.  A concrete example of this would be the canonical psychological text by Dr. Elsworth Baker, Man in the Trap, wherein there is a lengthy chapter devoted to the socio-political types according to basic sets of neurotic complexes. 

It is Cobb’s teammate Eames who understands this best.  He immediately sees that anti-monopolistic (ie, anti-capitalistic) feelings are not ethically or intellectually created, but are rooted in simple emotional dynamics pertaining especially to the father (in this case).  The goal for the team, then, is basically anti-Oedipal: they have to destroy Fischer’s desire to imitate and overcome (kill) his father so that he will, in turn, dissolve his corporate inheritance. 

“The Return of the Repressed”

Cobb’s pain is also a great example of the psychoanalytic “return of the repressed,” where the repressed emotion eventually returns as some kind of neurotic symptom.  The most brutal image of the “return of the repressed” is Cobb’s wife in the basement of his mind, literally caged in the hotel room where she killed herself, screaming in pain.  When Ariadne sees this, she tells Cobb that his wife can’t be contained there; she’ll get out.  And so she does.  She leaks out into the shared dreamscape and endangers every mission with increasing blood-lust.  We also have the train Cobb and his wife killed their (dream) selves with bursting through the streets during the team’s mission and Cobb’s estranged children playing amid the field of action as more dramatic returns of the repressed. 

The Terror of the Abyss, Clean Junkies

Where Inception misses some grit in its mainstream sensibility is in what we expect to be the real ordeal of being so involved in multiple realities.  Cobb clearly suffers this vertigo, but the rest of his team are perfectly settled and at ease with dancing between multiple levels of reality where they are shot, killed, and attacked regularly.  Nolan also completely avoids showing the dreamers inserting needles into themselves before they enter various dreamscapes.  This small but important exclusion keeps them as “gentlemen thieves.”  In any other time and place, they would be addicts replete with track marks.  Presenting them as being properly traumatized by their work and having some resemblance to junkies (and there are some suggestions of addiction, anyway) would have given more edge to some fairly flat characters and capitalized on the film’s potential for terror in the face of doubting reality.  It is only Cobb that obsessively uses his token to assure himself he’s not dreaming.  Ariadne and Arthur’s tokens are introduced but never used.

A further consequence of how little everyone but Cobb is affected by these reality shifts is that the final image of Cobb’s spinning token is weakened.  As the final shot focuses on the token, we know that it is spinning for us the audience.  But because the general consensus seems to be that wheeling and dealing in the dreamscape isn’t that dangerous or confusing, the potential menace of that spinning token is mitigated.  Instead, we are left with a charming intellectual question – what’s real?  Is Cobb’s world real?

These aren’t big problems, though.  The conceit, the screenplay at large, and the brilliant actions scenes all make this thrilling and extremely thoughtful at once.  Freud would be mighty proud.


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