by Christopher Nolan
Shooting Script - Undated
Psychological Thriller, 146 pages
"Once an idea's taken hold in the brain, it's almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, ignore it - but it stays there."
Inception seems to be one of those films that everyone has seen but also one of which everyone remembers different parts. This isn't surprising as there are layers upon layers in the narrative. A couple of weeks ago if someone had asked me what I remembered about it, I would have likely said that there were dreams within dreams and a spinning top that told the main character whether he was awake. While this is true, there's a lot more to Inception.
Inception takes us into a whole new world, a world where others can enter and explore a dreamer's subconsciousness. This is explained by Cobb almost immediately, but the exposition didn't bother me as we were in a whole new world. I was interested in what was going on and needed to know more about it, so essentially being told what was happening did not pull me out of the story in this particular case. (It also helped that this was lightly veiled by plot. Saito was essentially a stand in for the audience as the person to which everything was explained.)
I don't believe that I would have recalled anything about Mal, Cobb's wife, when thinking back on Inception, but, upon reading the script, this was the storyline that stuck out. In effect, she is the major antagonist threaded through the piece (perhaps as a stand in for Cobb's own mind), and the slow reveal of their relationship added a steady, building tension to an otherwise ever-changing and rapid-fire world.
We first meet Mal in the opening with Saito when the dream world is being explained. Cobb questions how Saito knew:
"Did she tell you, or have you known all along?"
In Act 1, we quickly find out that Mal's dead but that something happened with her and Cobb and that he needs to do this special job - planting an idea in someone else's mind rather than extracting one - in order to return home to America and, more importantly, to his children. The story spine and stakes are set, as is the central mystery.
This mystery is unwrapped throughout the next hundred or so pages, and the skill with which the clues are dispersed is palatable. With everything else that is going on, it would be easy to lose track of Mal, but, through quick flashes of her throughout the script, she remains present for us and we also understand that she is always on Cobb's mind.
The puzzle pieces are exquisite because of their simplicity. On page 24, Cobb states that he's performed an inception - planting an idea in someone else's mind - before and that it was successful, but he refuses to say who he did it to or to offer any more details. Even if we are already suspecting Mal (and I could not find a concrete reason why at this point in the script we would be), we know there is more to the mystery than the who.
We soon discover that Mal's getting stronger and Cobb can no longer keep her out of his mind. He cannot build the dream worlds himself because whatever he knows she will know, and she will work to sabotage him. On page 81, Arthur confirms that the inception was indeed with Mal, but no further details are offered:
Arthur: "With Mal? That worked out great, didn't it, Cobb?"
Cobb: "You don't know anything about that."
If anything, we want to know what happened more than we did before. Eventually, toward the end of Act 2, we get the "full" story. Cobb and Mal were on a job and became trapped in limbo for fifty years. They could build the world of their dreams, but it became impossible to live there knowing that it wasn't real. They had to kill themselves to wake up. Once back in the real world (and young again, as time works differently in dream states), Mal couldn't accept that this world was real and decided that they had to kill themselves again. She eventually committed suicide (again), but this time, instead of waking up, she died. She now exists in limbo (or, at least, in Cobb's subconsciousness) and can access dreams.
It isn't until page 131 that Nolan states Mal was given the idea that the world wasn't real (which is interestingly contrasted by Cobb repeating "I know what's real" on the same page), and it isn't until page 134 that Cobb says, "Because it was my lie." The word choice alone is interesting - that the world not being real was a lie - as, when Cobb first uttered it, it was true. They were in the dream world, and they needed to wake up. However this idea, this inception, kept growing, so once they were awake the idea - now a lie - was still present. Cobb had told his wife that death was a necessary escape, and she followed through. He "copes" with this guilt every day.
Whether a "ghost" of Mal is actually working in the dream state or whether (and the choice I go with) she is a projection of Cobb's subconsciousness working against him born from his guilt, she forces Cobb to question his world until the end, even pointing out how much his "real life" functions like a dream:
Mal: "No creeping doubts? Not feeling persecuted, Dom? Chased around the globe by anonymous corporations and police forces? The way the projections persecute the dreamer?"
My favorite memory of the film was that we were left to make this decision for ourselves. At the end Cobb was reunited with his children. He spun his top to make sure this was reality (in a dream state the top would spin forever). We, nor he, did not see it fall, but right before the screen went black it appeared to falter and, in the score, seemed to be heard falling. This point was debated by everyone who saw the film, and it revealed a lot about our, the audience's, belief systems. The script, however, is less ambiguous:
Behind him, on the table, the spinning top is STILL SPINNING. And we-
Perhaps this was all a dream, but Cobb at least conquered his guilt. This interpretation has me wondering whether this dream state that Cobb never wakes from is his version of the afterlife. Whether or not you agree, or whether you have your own interpretation, the fact that we're thinking about this means that the story has gotten under our skin. And that, I believe, is the mark of a successful psychological thriller.