Disclaimer: This is chock full of HUGE SPOILERS, so don’t read this if you haven’t seen it. Hell, don’t read it unless you’ve seen it twice. It’s more fun to discover stuff on your own. But here’s my take.
First, why don’t the dreams feel like dreams?
Some critics have been griping about this. They’re wrong. The dreams do feel like dreams. Cobb (DiCaprio) explains this early on, in the Parisian café scene, when discussing how we perceive our dreams. When you’re in a dream, it all seems real and normal. It’s only when you wake up and think back that you realize things were odd. So the film gives us the experience of how it feels when you’re in a dream, not the experience of how surreal it really was, which we only perceive after waking.
Hint: the key isn’t the spinning top.
First time I saw it, I thought it was purposely ambiguous. But after a second viewing, I’m convinced there really is an answer, and it’s this: Cobb is indeed awake at the end.
Three main reasons:
1. The key to working out when Cobb is dreaming is to watch his left hand very closely throughout the movie. Specifically, his ring finger.
At first I assumed it was a continuity error, but then noticed it follows a consistent pattern:
His silver wedding band is only on his finger when he’s dreaming. When he’s awake, his finger’s bare. Wonderfully subtle, ain’t it?
As Cobb explains: he and Mal are only still together in his dreams. Hence, that’s when the wedding ring is on. Watch the film closely. It’s very well staged for the camera throughout. In the final three scenes — on the plane, at the airport, and at Cobb’s house — we only get a few lightening-fast glimpses of his left hand, very much on purpose. And it is…
While the top does start to wobble just before the cut to black (in keeping with the times it ultimately falls), the ring is the clue to watch for.
2. The kids’ clothes. Many reviewers and bloggers have claimed Cobb is clearly dreaming in the end because the kids are wearing the same clothes they wore in Cobb’s other dreams.
But they’re mistaken. The clothes are purposely similar — it’s a clever misdirect by Nolan and the great costume designer Jeffrey Kurland — but they’re indeed different. If you pay close attention, it’s especially noticeable on the girl. In the final scene, the cut of her dress is different, and she now wears a white layer underneath.
Also, the kids have aged a little (to be sure, the credits list two sets of actors for the different ages).
3. Omniscient pov. We see too much outside of Cobb’s pov to make the ’twas-all-a-dream explanation very sensible, or even interesting. Without laboriously going through it all here, suffice it to say that watching it a second time, too many moments — especially small ones without Cobb — don’t really make sense or feel convincing viewed with that explanation.
Sure, it’s possible Cobb dreamed the kids’ slightly different clothes and all those scenes he had absolutely nothing to do with, but that’d make for a far less compelling story. And sure, it’s even possible he dreamed that his ring was off whenever he was supposedly awake. But that’s not a terribly compelling theory, since no attention is ever called to it. Not even by him. He never so much as touches, fiddles with or even glances at his ring. It seems to be a truly objective detail.
Why the film is so brilliant.
Apart from the mesmerizing spectacle and bravura filmmaking, my view of the film is that it’s a delightful quadruple-reversal of expectations.
First, we’re supposed to think he’s awake at the end, as he arrives home. But we’re smart moviegoers, we’ve seen enough twist endings and Twilight Zones… and sure enough, the still-spinning top reverses the “awake” theory. So then we think he’s dreaming. But then the top starts to wobble just as it cuts to black — that loud collective audience gasp and applause being one of the great joys of seeing movies in a crowded theater — making us question yet again. So we conclude the ending is purposely inconclusive, that either theory could work (though maybe we lean toward one or the other, depending on whether we’re optimists or pessimists).
Then we have our parking lot epiphanies as we start to remember all those little clues that suggest it was ALL a dream: the phrase “a leap of faith” being repeated both in and out of dreams, Miles (Michael Caine) imploring Cobb to “Come back to reality,” the kids’ clothes in the end, Ariadne’s name origin, Mal’s suggestions that “reality” is his dream, and so on. We start to wonder if maybe Cobb himself was being incepted.
But then, looking even closer on repeat viewing… we notice that the kids’ clothes really are different in the end, we notice the ring, and other details. And we ultimately reverse yet again — to find we’ve come full circle.
All those little clues that suggested he was always dreaming finally reveal themselves to be but clever red herrings, meant to misdirect sharp moviegoers.
Knowing that we’re always a step ahead, that we’ve come to expect twist endings and ambiguous conclusions, Christopher Nolan has taken it a step farther, and reversed our expectations of reversed expectations.
But the beauty of the film is that it doesn’t really matter. One can enjoy it however one interprets the ending. The story reaches emotional closure either way.
(I should add that however one interprets it, it’s not a film about filmmaking itself, as some reviewers have suggested. That’s just silly and uninteresting as a concept. And debunked by Nolan himself.)
The coolest, subtlest aspect of the film that I didn’t pick up on (even after listening to the terrific score all week) was this from the great composer Hans Zimmer.
by Glenn Camhi
- About The Writer -
Glenn Camhi is the award winning director of the comedy “The Bunglers“. I met Glenn at the 2012 Manhattan Film Festival. I invited him to this blog because I thought his description of Inception was brilliant and the most sound interpretation of the film. -E