Christopher Nolan and the Neo-Noir

Christopher Nolan has been a growing figure in the film industry since the turn of the century. With iconic films such as Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002), Inception (2010), and The Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan has established himself as an expert in noir films, often encapsulating themes of philosophy, mentality, temporality, and delving into modern thrillers. This following focuses on how Nolan transpired the neo-noir genre, while incorporating aspects recognizable among all his films.

Film Noir & Neo-Noir

Noir films are movies that often comprise of crime dramas and thrillers, prominently apparent during and after World War II – as inspired by German expressionism and European crime films of the same era. Noir films incorporate special effects to detail the movie’s plot, as well as use production techniques that give dramatic vibes such as low lights and elaborate shots. How the neo-noir genre differs from this is they utilize technology and techniques that were incapable of being done during the 1940s and 50s, thus ­neo­– prefixation to mark the contemporary methods and approaches of the genre; neo-noir is also defined for its American-ized takes on issues. Both genres often include an anti-hero character with ambivalent sentiments, femme fatale, urban landscapes, and investigative/thriller plotlines that invigorate audiences to participate in the resolution.

: The Rise To Auteurism

Nolan’s first hit was Memento (2000), recognized for its take on memory (anterograde amnesia and short-term memory loss) and non-linear narrative – an incorporation of two timelines, one in colored, reverse-chronological order, and one in black-and-white, chronological order, of which come together to provide complete resolution. The tone and shots shown at the beginning of Memento, especially the black-and-white sequences, establish the film as neo-noir. Its non-linear narrative also leaves questions for viewers as the next scene is approached, which adds to the investigatory theme of noir for audiences; in fact the film in itself pays homage to film noir due to aspects that Nolan uses.

One example of homage is the utilization of Polaroid photos and tattoos to further investigation, rather than use modern materials (but can be explained by the incapacity of the lead character Leonard, to use such objects). The film’s shots are always in reference to Leonard – direct shots/close-ups, referential setting takes, short takes and flashes – this way Nolan allowed audiences to get on board to what Leonard experiences. There is even a femme fatale character in the form of Natalie, who is assumed to help Leonard in the resolution of his predicament.

Memento plays with the protagonist’s key emotions, helplessness and anger, mixing them as they push Leonard to realize the outcome of events despite his impairment. With pessimistic themes of memory, and towards the end also identity, we see that Nolan begins his jump into neo-noir by applying classic aspects to pave his way to auteurism.

: Testing the Genre

One of Nolan’s lesser-known films but just as acclaimed is Insomnia (2002), a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. In this film Nolan once again introduces us to a troubled protagonist, caught between the rift of good cop-bad cop morality. Something to be pointed out here is that, apart from venturing into more neo-noir aspects, Nolan also tests the waters of the genre by trying new features.

As noir films are known to be dark or played with shadows, Insomnia stands out as it takes place in a town where the sun never sets, hence a never-ending presence of sunlight (of which contributes to the lead, Will’s, insomnia). There is also a continuation of a location set apart from society – Memento was always focused on where Leonard was, Insomnia’s setting is literally distant from everyone else hence leaving audiences nowhere else to look at. Toward the end audiences will learn that people go to this town as way of escape, which is reminiscent of the escapism used in noir films.

As mentioned earlier, Nolan once again introduces a lead character with a troubled past in Will Dormer (a play on dormir which translates to sleep), whose ethics and morality are put into question early on when he accidentally shoots his partner in the midst of an internal investigation. Not even halfway through the film we already know the killer of the introductory murder; the mystery viewers are left with is how will Will resolve the recent happenings. Not only does he have to face a reputation, but also how justice should be dealt with, which a greater thrill than finding a murderer. But compared to Leonard in Memento, Will does not leave his supporting actor or the viewers believing that his way is correct, prompting to “not lose her way”, showing resolution in his ambivalent characteristics.

The Dark Knight
Trilogy: Journeying Through Neo-Noir

Perhaps the films Nolan will be most known for, apart from his thrillers, are what comprise The Dark Knight Trilogy – Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – based on DC Comics’ popular hero Batman. In these films Nolan begins delving into neo-noir by applying different kinds of morality to his characters, pinning a flourishing Batman against noir-inspired villains, toying with their ambiguity and ambivalence to the plot’s drive; not to mention also the very urbanized, corruptive, and contemporary environment that Nolan depicts Gotham.

The most prominent emotion in the trilogy is fear. Bruce Wayne, to become the Dark Knight, must overcome his fears of the past if he wishes to be the defender of the city. Each of the antagonists in the trilogy utilize fear for societal means – Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow use fear gas to spread paranoia, the Joker (with his chaotic and psychopathic tendencies) utilizes terror to cause rifts between Gotham’s residents, and Bane build on terrorism to point out class distinction and needs for revolution.

Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy is a great example of neo-noir, because of how it depicts the comic-based society of Gotham – thematically and production-wise – and how Batman wishes to defend it of contemporary criminality, that is, corruption and terrorism (which can be directed to the American-ization of noir). Because there are threats of anarchy upsetting society, there is a continual theme of transgression that may have not been prominent then but more prevalent now. Other examples of how it is neo-noir are the use of gadgets (from the gadgets in Batman’s utility belt, to the vehicles like the Tumbler and Batpod), and the presence of modern femme fatale in Rachel Dawes, Selina Kyle, and Miranda Tate/Talia al Ghul.

: Triumphant Highlights

While many of Nolan’s films have been called remarkable, none of them are as decorated or complex as Inception (2010). As a perfect example of neo-noir, Inception fully cements Nolan’s place as an auteur in the neo-noir genre. The aspects he incorporates in the film are recognizable as neo-noir, with attributions to film noir, and are equally recognized as Nolan signature pieces of work.

Considered a heist film because of the plot’s motive, it already can be defined as a noir film. The complexity of the interchanges between dreams and reality, levels and flashbacks, all add to the contemporary vision Nolan pictured. The urban landscapes and varying cinematography seen in all the settings (reality, dreams, and various levels) point its neo-noir aspects of production. Again Nolan uses fear in the telling of the story, as the “heist” is considered a dangerous attempt, what more the complications if the plans go wrong and the characters will be sent to a different dream level – or worse, into a limbo state.

The characters themselves show the development of noir aspects, as Dom is a more complex protagonist while Mal is a definite figure of femme fatale. Dom has the struggle of dealing with his past, of which Mal is a role of in both reality and in the mind; mostly as a threat because she is a hindrance whenever she is present. While Dom knows he is innocent of the crime and is driven to go back home no matter the cost, there is still a present guilt in him throughout the film; this shows the ambivalent emotions a noir character has as the film progresses.

The production elements used in the film also show the jump into neo-noir. The editing used in Inception both aid in the understanding yet confusing audiences between what is real and what are dreams, as well as what happens in each when an occurrence happens in a certain level; Dom’s flashbacks also add to this variety. The visual effects also exemplify the contemporaneity of the film, expanding the urban landscapes and one’s abilities in dreams states. The musical score by Hans Zimmer, a common collaborator of Nolan, also makes the film sound epic by incorporating dramatic sounds. All that was stated remain intriguing to viewers as the last scene leaves one wondering if Dom is still dreaming, or has he truly come back home.


Though Nolan has other films under his belt like Following (1998), The Prestige (2006), and Interstellar (2014), all of which show hints of noir and neo-noir but not as much as those mentioned earlier, it is very clear to see that he has established himself on a scale of greatness. With inspirations like Kubrick and Malick, and becoming an inspiration to future film makers as well, Nolan has set a standard for the neo-noir genre, shaping it in ways attributing to it’s origins but casually flowing with the times. While many will still find trouble in understanding the complexity of his films, it only goes to show how complex neo-noir is too, and what he delivers to the industry will provide future understanding and hopefully, more diversity in the genre.


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Author: Kristofer Purnell

"Even in a moment of abject saccharine, I still got it"

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