• Carson Cook

The Deaths of Christopher Nolan: A Ranking


Newmarket

It’s no secret that Christopher Nolan has a dead wife problem. His (typically male) protagonists lose their wives/girlfriends/potential love interests so frequently that it would be an honest-to-god surprise if Elizabeth Debicki, Clémence Poésy, and Melanie Laurent all make it through Tenet alive. But Nolan’s use of death as plot mechanic or character motivation isn’t just limited to his dead wives — friends, family, offscreen characters, all are fair game as a means to move the plot along or give the protagonist something to work towards. But not all Nolan deaths are created equal: while some are crucial or befall a well-rounded character, others are more rote, merely a necessary cog in the machine. To that end, we present the Nolan Deaths Ranking — a measurement of just how meaningful his various offings are. Each death is given a score from 0 to 5 on three separate scales: (1) is the doomed man or woman a real, three-dimensional character and/or do they have a narrative purpose while they’re still alive, (2) how important is their death to the protagonist’s motivations, and (3) how important is their death to the film’s plot. The scores from each scale are added together to get a total estimate of Nolan Death Meaningfulness™ and determine once and for all which of the many losses truly mattered.


*Ties broken by “intangibles” (i.e. the author’s preference about who should be higher).

**Spoilers ahead, of course.


13. Cooper’s Wife (Interstellar)

Real character/narrative purpose while alive: 0

Importance of death to protagonist motivations: 2

Importance of death to plot: 1

Total Score: 3


If this were Nolan’s first movie, the pre-narrative death of Cooper’s wife probably wouldn’t stand out, but given his history it feels like an evolution of sorts: “Listen, do we even need to have the wife in the movie? Does she need to have a name? She’s dead anyway, what’s the point.” The only reason she scores as high as she does is that Cooper’s single parent status is key to the thematic resonance of the film, though you wonder if it would have hurt that much to switch from dead to divorced.


12. Wolf Edmunds (Interstellar)

Real character/narrative purpose while alive: 0

Importance of death to protagonist motivations: 3

Importance of death to plot: 1

Total Score: 4


Technically we don’t even know Astronaut Wolf Edmunds is dead until the end of the movie, but his absence does drive Brand’s motivations to a large extent, which is more than can be said about Cooper’s former wife — that, and the fact that Edmunds has a name, gives him the leg up here.


11. The Guy the Bald Man Murders (Following)

Real character/narrative purpose while alive: 0

Importance of death to protagonist motivations: 2

Importance of death to plot: 3

Total Score: 5


Another unnamed and unseen character, though in this case hardly anyone in the movie has a name so it’s tough to hold that against Nolan. This one’s a bit of a stretch given that the protagonist didn’t even know the character, but we do find out late in the game that it was this particular death — and the fact that there was a witness to it — that has been driving the narrative all along.


Warner Bros.

10. Harvey Dent (The Dark Knight Rises)

Real character/narrative purpose while alive: 1

Importance of death to protagonist motivations: 2

Importance of death to plot: 3

Total Score: 6


If we were scoring across Nolan’s entire Batman trilogy, Harvey Dent’s character score would be much higher, but his death doesn’t really become a plot mechanic until The Dark Knight Rises — he gets a token point for his establishment in the previous film. You’d be forgiven if you forgot how much space TDKR gives to The Dent Act and Commissioner Gordon’s fear that if people knew Dent went crazy and killed some corrupt cops all of Gotham’s criminals would be released (yes, I know), but it’s enough to keep Dent out of the bottom three.


9. Ra’s al Ghul (The Dark Knight Rises)

Real character/narrative purpose while alive: 2

Importance of death to protagonist motivations: 0

Importance of death to plot: 4

Total Score: 6


The same caveat applied to Dent comes into play here as well, though a couple flashbacks in The Dark Knight Rises bumps Ra’s al Ghul up in regards to character. Though his death in Batman Begins really isn’t a motivating factor for any of our protagonists, it thoroughly drives our antagonists in their desire to avenge their fallen father/leader and finish what he started, which in turn serves as the backbone to the film’s primary conflict.


8. Sarah Borden (The Prestige)

Real character/narrative purpose while alive: 4

Importance of death to protagonist motivations: 1

Importance of death to plot: 2

Total Score: 7


One of the few characters on this list to have substantial screentime prior to their death, poor Sarah Borden kills herself after being driven mad by her marriage to — spoiler alert — a man whose identity is split 50/50 with his twin brother. That being said, her death unfortunately doesn’t appear to have much of an onscreen impact on her late husband, mainly functioning as a means to (a) help set up the eventual reveal, and (b) establish Alfred Borden as a single parent in order for his daughter to eventually be used as a bargaining chip.


7. Kay Connell (Insomnia)

Real character/narrative purpose while alive: 1

Importance of death to protagonist motivations: 4

Importance of death to plot: 4

Total Score: 9


Kay Connell’s death is the initial inciting event of Insomnia, and the investigation of her murder is a driving narrative force throughout, but she misses out on fives in the motivations and plot categories because of a second murder (see entry #4) that forces the protagonist (and the film) to split their attention. Alas, sometimes you don’t even get to be the most important Nolan Death in your own movie.


Buena Vista

6. Julia McCullough (The Prestige)

Real character/narrative purpose while alive: 2

Importance of death to protagonist motivations: 4

Importance of death to plot: 4

Total Score: 10


The other dead wife from The Prestige, Julia McCullough ranks higher — despite dying much earlier — because her death is clearly the principal motivating factor behind Robert Angier’s actions and the resulting narrative. At least, that’s the case early on: as the film progresses, Angier’s need to beat Borden seems to become a little more tenuously connected to the blame he believes Borden bears for his wife’s death, keeping Julia from a pair of perfect scores.


5. Thomas and Martha Wayne (Batman Begins)

Real character/narrative purpose while alive: 3

Importance of death to protagonist motivations: 5

Importance of death to plot: 2

Total Score: 10


If you only know one thing about Batman, odds are it’s that he’s an orphan. The deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne have been at the core of Batman’s identity for decades and the Nolan films don’t stray much from that line, though they do allow the two (and by that I mean Thomas) significantly more screentime and character development than the films that came before. While we probably never really need to see the Waynes gunned down in Crime Alley again, it would be forgivable if they were given at least as much to do as they are here.


4. Hap Eckhart (Insomnia)

Real character/narrative purpose while alive: 2

Importance of death to protagonist motivations: 5

Importance of death to plot: 4

Total Score: 11


As Will Dormer’s late partner, Hap Eckhart jumps ahead of Kay Connell in the Insomnia mini-rankings due to (a) him being slightly more of a real character and (b) his death tending to override Kay’s when the two conflict as motivational factors for Dormer — understandably, given the fact that Dormer’s the one who killed Eckhart. If the top third of this list is any indication, having the protagonist be responsible for your death is going to net you some extra points in the Nolan-verse.


3. Catherine Shelby (Memento)

Real character/narrative purpose while alive: 1

Importance of death to protagonist motivations: 5

Importance of death to plot: 5

Total Score: 11


Nolan’s original Dead Wife, Catherine Shelby’s death drives both plot and character in Memento, though in classic Nolan fashion the truth behind the manner of her death and the identity of her killer is left unresolved, positing that our amnesiac protagonist Leonard may in fact be the responsible party. Though she’s barely on screen, hardly a scene goes by without Leonard referencing his wife in some form — explicitly or implicitly — allowing some depth to a trope that would soon become cliché.


Warner Bros.

2. Rachel Dawes (The Dark Knight)

Real character/narrative purpose while alive: 4

Importance of death to protagonist motivations: 4

Importance of death to plot: 4

Total Score: 12


Of the five Batman characters on this list, Rachel Dawes benefits from being the one with the most to do in the film where she dies. While still more thinly drawn than you might like in The Dark Knight, Dawes gets significant screentime and factors into the post-death motivations of both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent. Though she makes it longer into the film than many of Nolan’s doomed characters, her death is critical for the Two-Face plot that makes up much of the back half of the film — and on our meaningfulness scale, that leaves her as one of the most well-balanced entrants.


1. Mal Cobb (Inception)

Real character/narrative purpose while alive: 4

Importance of death to protagonist motivations: 4

Importance of death to plot: 5

Total Score: 13


How do you make it to the top of the Nolan Death Rankings? By managing to have significant screentime and a reasonable character arc despite having died before the movie started of course. Yes, you could say that the Mal Cobb in the majority of the film is merely a figment of her husband’s mind, but given that Inception successfully argues for the reality and worth of memory and thought I’m not sure you can really separate the real Mal from the projection. In any case, she just misses out on a perfect motivation score given Dom’s competing and ultimately triumphant need to get back to his children, but as the film’s primary antagonist it’s hard to argue against her immense importance to the plot and subsequent status as Nolan’s Most Meaningful Death. Congratulations Mal — to us, you’ll always be waiting for a train.

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