How Christopher Nolan Uses Film Structure to Heighten Narrative

By Justin Russell →


In Dunkirk, Nolan once again organizes a film through unconventional structure.  The film has been met, largely, with critical acclaim.  However, some have questioned whether or not the film’s structure is too confusing or obscures the narrative with unnecessary editing.  Since Dunkirk opened, it has been fun and interesting to hear people’s varied experiences with it, and it made me think a lot about Nolan’s use of structure.  While criticisms on Nolan’s style are valid, I maintain that the film’s particular structure is an important aspect of how Nolan communicates the stakes of human life and the small decisions that define heroism, and serves to heighten the narrative in an essential way.

Before we discuss Dunkirk, however, let’s look back on how Nolan has used film structure to inform narrative in some of his previous works.  Keep in mind that these are not comprehensive reviews, but rather a discussion that focuses primarily on the interaction between structure and theme.

Read on, or skip to a specific section, if you’d like:

The Prestige

Memento, 2000 (spoilers ahead)

In Nolan’s breakout film, Guy Pearce famously plays Leonard, a man stricken with retrograde amnesia.  The film is intimate in its limited perspective, following Leonard through his routines, both trivial and severe.  From little notes on photographs that help him remember things day-to-day, to horrific self-administered tattoos detailing his wife’s murder, Leonard’s short-lived memory and his need to remember are central to the narrative.

Simulating Leonard’s retrograde amnesia, the film’s editing is disjointed and inter-splices two converging timelines in alternating chunks of a few minutes each, with one timeline running in reverse-chronological order.  This nonlinear structure has compelling narrative implications, and strongly affects the parsing out of information to the viewer, which mirrors the parsing out of information from Leonard to himself in his notes and photographs.  The narrative climaxes in the first moments of the film, when Leonard kills Teddy, who he suspects killed his wife.  The psychological climax, however, lies at the end of the film where it is revealed that Leonard purposely framed Teddy in his own notes with false evidence, anticipating that his own lie would be forgotten and perceived later as truth, thus giving himself somebody to inflict his vengeance upon while preserving his self-righteousness under a protective film of voluntary ignorance.

In Memento, Nolan aims to dispel the notion of objective truth by telling the story of a man who lies to himself through tangible means – photographs, notes, and tattoos, in an effort to manufacture purpose.  By concealing Leonard’s dubious motivations until the last moments of the film through meticulous editing, we are better able to acknowledge the power of self-construed narrative in his, as well as our own, life and the fundamentally subjective nature of experiencing the outside world, an exterior that we traditionally presume as objective reality.  Such thematic implications are made possible through Nolan’s manipulation of nonlinear structure.


Godard famously said, “Photography shows the truth, Cinema shows the truth twenty-four times per second,” and “Every cut is a lie.”  Through Memento, Nolan renders the first statement false, saying, in effect, that not only are photography and film falsehoods, but so is any attempt at constructing narrative.  By demonstrating this truth through Memento’s distinctive structure, however, he renders Godard’s second statement true, which, in turn, paradoxically affirms the first statement – that, yes, every edit is a falsehood, every movie and memory a subjective reconstruction, but that all lies carry with them a tremendous capacity to reveal a truth.

The Prestige, 2006 (spoilers ahead)

One of the finest films I have ever seen, The Prestige follows two rival performing magicians, Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale respectively.  Their rivalry becomes intensely personal, and their obsession takes its toll on our characters and those around them.  They steal magic tricks, lovers, and more – there is seemingly no line they are unwilling to cross.

Just as he did with Memento, Nolan uses nonlinear structure to withhold and control the flow of information to his audience.  The story is parsed as two timelines, the first framing the second within itself, the film cutting between the timelines intermittently.  The first and more recent timeline sees Borden on trial while Angier’s ingénieur, John Cutter, (played by Michael Caine), tidies up the consequences of the second timeline’s affairs.   The second is told under the auspices of the first through flashback, as Borden reads Angier’s diary, which details Angier’s search for and reading of Borden’s diary in the past.  The film ends with a climactic third act wherein the trial ends, lives are cut short, ghosts return from the grave, and the great tricks of our performers – the Bordens, the Angiers, and Nolan, are revealed.

The film involves many complications and moving parts – disguises, sabotage, subterfuge – you name it.   Amidst all the complication, however, it is crucial that dishonesty does not come about our characters reflexively.  Yes, the Bordens live deceitful lives, but their deception is calculated and committed throughout their entire being, yet they are never quick to lie.  Whether it be Wenscombe’s genuine defection to Borden’s act at the behest of Angier, Angier’s tragic Freudian slip, saying, “I don’t care about my wife, I care about his secret!”, the Bordens’ genuine love for Sarah and Olivia (and the manner in which that love manifests in their behavior towards one lover versus the other), or Borden pleading ignorance to the knot he tied to McCullough at the consternation of Angier, the truth is always persistent – only concealed within the machinations of the trick, a trick larger than any of the characters themselves.  The performers are slaves to the performance.

And performance is both what The Prestige is as well as what it reveals – it is Nolan’s own magic trick, complete with its pledge, turn, and prestige.  The structure of the film serves to conceal and reveal at every turn.  The deceptions that occur within Angier’s and Borden’s diaries, which give the narrative its structure, signal to both the characters and the audience the various turns of the grand trick.  Through his use of obscure structure, Nolan asserts that filmmaking, like any creative endeavor, is a trick of the eye, a sleight of hand, every edit a misdirection, a transformation of the ordinary into something magical.  It is an obsession, and like many obsessions requires total devotion and sacrifice.  It consumes, and has the power to define you.  But the performance, like the Bordens, the bow-legged Chinaman, and, eventually, all of the Angiers come to find, can also destroy you.

“Are you watching closely?”

Cutting through the pageantry of these deceptions, the unceremonious lowering into the gallows of both Borden and the treacherous machine (two timelines which converge in simultaneity through masterful editing) serves as a narrative prestige, revealing a hidden, yet sincere, monomaniacal drive.  This instinct, whose malevolence has propagated slowly for long, then violently and uncontrollably at its end, can consume everything in the vicinity of its source like an oil fire in a dingy basement.

The movie’s thematic structure mirrors Cutter’s three acts.  A pledge – a story of competing magicians, romances, and deception.  A turn – Angier’s realization of the Transported Man through Tesla; “real magic.”  A prestige – the acknowledgement that real magic doesn’t lie in sleights of hand that escape the eye or dazzling machines that shoot lightning, but in the ability to find the extraordinary within the mundane.

The Transported Man sprawls in Angier’s mind as the seed of his obsession, growing in complexity, driving him to wit’s and money’s end, all the while ignoring the pleas and advice to give in.  Ironically, the trick is obvious to the untrained eye – yes, Cutter is wise enough to know, but Sarah’s nephew (and Sarah, too, I suspect) could see the simplicity in Borden’s act.  Nolan’s greatest trick is to expose the banality of it.  Unfortunately for everyone caught within The Prestige, it is a lesson that is learned too late.

Caged Bird

Inception, 2010 (spoilers ahead)

Nolan paints Inception in a modestly-cyberpunk dreamscape.  There are no streaks of purple and pink neon, nor femme fatales with implanted mirrorshades and retractable fingernail-razor-blades, (although Inception‘s femme fatale is just as lethal despite her lack of augmentation and lack of being). Make no mistake, however – Inception is categorically cyberpunk.

In this technologically accelerated near-future, the cyberpunk staple of “jacking in” is the main conceit of the film.  In Inception, however, these console cowboys aren’t jacking into a computer, rather, they jack into people’s dreams.  Heisters, like the main crew of the film, can exploit the dreams of high-profile businessmen, taking corporate espionage to a new level by stealing valuable trade secrets amidst a vulnerable subconscious dream state.  But this crew, (led by Dominick Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio), is tasked with an unprecedented challenge: not to extract, but to implant an idea into the mind of an unsuspecting mark without the mark recognizing that the idea is not his own – thus, maintaining the illusion of inception.

This requisite of maintaining inception is crucial to informing the film’s structure as well as its themes.  In order to keep the mark unaware of the implanted idea, the crew must sedate the mark, (as well as themselves), and jack into a shared dream.  One dream is enough to steal an idea, but for an idea to be planted covertly, the crew must sedate the dreamer within that dream, and again in the next to infiltrate deeper so that the dreamer is dreaming that they are dreaming the moment of inception in a deep part of their subconscious.  Nolan illustrates the complexities of these mechanisms by frequently cutting back and forth between the different layers of the dream, with consistent visual and audio cues to signify the fact that dreams are accelerated the deeper you go; a week, six months, or ten years can be experienced in each of the three dream layers respectively.  The structure of the film can be seen as a set of Russian nesting dolls, each dream a subset of another as the timescales exponentially increase with each layer.

Dream Within a Dream

Cobb’s team wrestles with the fact that complex ideas must be reduced to their simplest form for inception to occur meaningfully – the seed of the idea must be allowed to germinate inside of the dreamer’s mind for it to fully stick.  This fact gets to the fundamental question of communication, of transmitting ideas to another mind, which is one of the central themes of the movie.  In fact, Inception is an extension of themes Nolan explored in The Prestige, in which he conveyed his obsession with the creative process.  The dream-architects in Inception, as well as filmmakers like Nolan and his crew, are tasked with communicating pure ideas with as much resolution and verisimilitude as they can muster.

Cobb describes ideas as viruses, which are resilient, contagious, and have the ability to infect.  Nolan acknowledges the communicable and memetic nature of such ideas.  When handling pure ideas, he recognizes, it is crucial to maintain the illusion of its method of delivery.  Both dream-architects and filmmakers design sets, costumes, finance, direct, assume identities, choreograph, and obfuscate in order to best maintain this illusion.  Preserving the suspension of disbelief within each dream-level, as well as in a movie theatre, is of utmost importance to implanting an enduring idea into the mind of an audience.

This is where the importance of the film’s structure is most obvious.  By nesting each dream within one another in exponential time-scales, Nolan compresses a sprawling and complex idea into a diamond, burying it within the pressurized depths of the subconscious, crystallizing it into its most fundamental form.  Each layer serves to make the idea exponentially more dense and, as a result, more communicable.  When this mere seed of an idea is finally implanted, it is allowed to sprout outwards, touching more parts of the mind as it grows.  The dream-layers are like strata of soil, and the deeper the seed is planted, the wider and more comprehensively are its roots allowed to reach and take hold.  This mental conquest is the ultimate goal of any artist and of the act of communication at large.


The multi-dream structure of the film also encompasses Cobb’s relationship with his family.  A theme Nolan has explored many times in films like The Prestige and Interstellar is the sacrifice demanded from obsession and the toll it takes on those one cares about, particularly family.  Based on these sentiments, it is not hard to imagine that being a prolific filmmaker who dedicates so much of himself to the craft may, at times, strain his relationships.  In the film, Cobb’s deceased wife resides in the recesses of his subconscious, tormenting him through dreams with guilt – guilt which has also troubled his relationship with his children.  This Spielbergian family plot-line is resolved only through Cobb’s exploration of his dreams, many levels down into the depths of his subconscious wherein he finally finds the strength to let go of the ghost of his beloved wife.  The fact that this reconciliation took place in Cobb’s inner-most subconscious is vital.  Nolan, once again, affirms the power of the creative process, and how the mere act of creation can afford a creator the opportunity to tap into the deepest parts of oneself that the conscious, defensive mind does not permit itself to touch.  Through film structure, Nolan has allowed us a window into the very process through which he reckons with his demons – the process of creation.

This potential is illustrated in an exchange between Cobb and his protege, Ariadne, (played by Ellen Page), wherein they discuss the machinations of building a dream, (0:10 to 0:48 in the following video):

The opportunity the creative process affords us is not limited to giving shape to already existent ideas, but to explore the internal logic of potential ideas and allowing us to discover the truths that lie within them.  For example, many of the topics I’ve written about in this piece are things that I had not observed initially after seeing these films or recognized in the time since, but only through the process of putting desultory thoughts to the test in writing was I able to discover such items of interest.  I would wager that many creative individuals in many fields have found this educational value in their work.

Dunkirk, 2017 (spoilers ahead)

Dunkirk, Nolan’s latest film, focuses on the evacuation efforts of Allied troops who have been pinned down in the commune of Dunkirk on the northern coast of France in 1940.  The story is told through the intimate lens of various troops, sailors, and pilots, desperately fighting for survival against an advancing Axis army, whose blitzkrieg has penetrated through and isolated the Allied defenses.  Specifically, the points of view that we follow include Tommy, a young British Private who is being evacuated on the beach, three civilian sailors who are called upon to aid evacuation efforts, and Farrier, a pilot of the Royal Air Force trying to defend the shores and rescue vessels from the aerial bombardment of the Luftewaffe.

Nolan takes the Russian-nesting-doll structure of Inception and applies it to Dunkirk, albeit in a slightly more subdued fashion.  He uses the structure to similar effect, compressing a complex idea into a more raw and intense form.  Three timelines are acknowledged briefly in chapter cards – a week on The Mole, a day in the Sea, and an hour in the Air.  The duration of the pilots’ flight occurs within the duration of the sailors’ voyage, which occurs within the duration of the evacuation at the Mole.  Like Inception, you’ll notice that these timescales graduate in a nonlinear fashion.  Inception‘s dreams increase from a week to six months to ten years through three dream-levels, while the timelines in Dunkirk compress exponentially as well.  This nonlinear compression of time allows the ideas Nolan is communicating to be compounded, heightening the impact of its delivery.

Nolan cuts between these timelines, as he does with his previous films, with frequency.  With each cut, the focus shifts between different individuals, each making small decisions for the sake of survival or protection of others.  These small acts accumulate throughout most of the film, until the three timelines converge and intertwine in a sort of a ‘end-of-a-Seinfeld-episode’ moment.  This climactic set-piece sees our civilian sailors, with a downed pilot on their ship, attempting to rescue Tommy and his comrades from a sinking vessel while they are all in danger of being attacked by a German bomber.  The crux of the set-piece lies in the ultimate and central act of heroism in the movie – Farrier’s decision to turn back to fight the German bomber despite using up fuel that was to be spent on a return flight to England.  In the end, Farrier saves many lives, but is captured by the Germans after his reserves run dry.

The convergence of air, land, and sea in the film’s structure represents a boiling point that contains all of the pent up energy of the week of chaos at the Mole, the tumultuous voyage of the sailors, and the fierce flight of the pilots.  It is crucial to note that Farrier’s ultimate act of heroic sacrifice does not overshadow and diminish the smaller acts of survival by others throughout the film, but rather serves to encompass and release the accumulated emotional energy of every preceding small act in a moment of sheer immediacy.  Every minute decision shown in the movie prior to that climax – the Frenchman opening the door of a sinking vessel to save lives at his own risk, the sailors pressing forth despite the death of a young crewman and attempting to rescue a downed Spitfire pilot despite not knowing if the he is alive, Tommy’s stand against his comrades when they desperately attempt to throw people off of their barely-seaworthy vessel – every one of these decisions has led these individuals to this moment.   The set-piece is a Hieronymus Bosch triptych, maintaining all of its intricate, intimate detail despite its epic scale.  The moment is a jewel of tragedy, hope, and heroism that has been compressed and made brilliant through the layers of Nolan’s structure.  Ultimately, his structure serves to illustrate the stakes of every act of survival, and the cumulative power of small deeds.


  1. Outstanding article and observations regarding structure based on timelines! This movie also benefited by not being focused only on a land, sea, or air conflict but the totality of most battles & wars in the modern era, the jointness and integration of land, sea, and air.

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