Last weekend I reread The Great Gatsby and at some point in that reading realized that the narrative of that story is fully of deep and interesting themes. Themes, it could be argued, are more interesting than the ones we learn about. Certainly the themes we are taught exist in the book. They are part of he narrative, but by focusing on those themes and the closing lines of the novel we lose track of the narrative and separate plot from theme and end up treating the book more like a puzzle than a story. In re-watching Inception this past weekend I felt much the same.
Whenever I have heard Inception discussed in the past the focus is on the ending. The question of does the top keep spinning or tip over after the credits roll. This question is left up to the interpretation of the viewer, and on this viewing my main takeaway of that final scene is it doesn’t matter what the top does. Whether it falls over or stays standing is not entirely relevant to the plot and the story we are presented. If you want my opinion on it I think it does tip over and Cobb is in the real world. He ignores the top because he’s no longer focusing on his wife and the past. The top was her totem, not his, and it is stated it tells you if you are in someone else’s dream. If you notice throughout the film he never sees his children’s faces and then he turns his pack on his wife’s totem, his dream of being with her again, and gazes upon the faces of his children denoting he is in the real world.
I lay all that out in the previous paragraph while saying the top doesn’t matter and yet it is central to my interpretation of the ending, but where the difference in my interpretation lies is i am building my theme from the plot. Not looking at the ending and trying to solve it like a riddle. If Cobb still dreaming? Was the entire movie a dream? Where does reality end and dreams begin? Forget all those questions. Instead look at it as a movie about a broken man. A man that has suffered a loss so traumatic, so heartbreaking, that he would rather live in dreams than reality. The only thing tethering him to this world are his children. If not for his children he would have jumped off that hotel balcony with his wife, and in this central plot point we find the central theme of Inception.
It is my belief that the film should be viewed as Cobb’s struggle to deal with the trauma caused by his wife’s suicide. His wife who he promised to grow old with, his wife that he built a world with, his wife that he then grew old with in that world of their creation. Cobb and Mal’s relationship is presented as the ideal one. They are in an undying romance. They spend one lifetime together in limbo and are ready to spend another together, but she no longer trusts reality and longs to return to the world they built in limbo. This could easily be interpreted as the human nature to idealize our relationships and be disappointed by the reality of them, but there is no evidence that Cobb and Mal have any relationship issues other than Mal’s inability to accept reality.
Within the movie there are several interesting and important plot developments related to Cobb dealing with his trauma. There is the prison of regrets he has built for himself with the basement level, his deepest darkest regret, being the night his wife killed herself. Whether he regrets that he couldn’t save her or that he didn’t kill himself as well is a question for each individual viewer. I choose to believe Cobb is racked by survivors guilt. He blames himself for his wife’s suicide. He is the one that planted the idea in her head that her reality wasn’t real. This is how they were able to escape limbo. How he convinced her to lay her head on a railroad track and let a train take it off.
Living in the times that we do now we all understand trauma just a little bit. At times it can be like walking in a dream, and I imagine for the deeply depressed and those contemplating suicide that they do think that they will wake up to a better reality. Inception might ask us the question of what is real and what is a dream, but it also tells us a story of depression, guilt, anxiety, and trauma, and I believe that finding the themes in the narrative is a more interesting way to view the film than looking at the ending and trying to solve it. Death and tragedy is a riddle with no answer. It cannot be solved. Sure we can put all the pieces together and know why someone killed themselves or were killed but knowing this never brings them back. Solving the riddle of the spinning top doesn’t return Mal to Cobb or Cobb to Mal however you want to view the film.