Characters That Only Need One Line

Inception. What a movie. Also, there will be sssspoilerssss.

It’s got the action, the music, the visuals, the mind-blowing possibility. Every time I watch it, I am wound up, wound down, riddled by doubt and inspired. That’s something, considering how many times I’ve seen it—that, or I’m just crazy—and it’s the characters that keep bringing me back. The great performances, establishing quirks and sharp interactions dwarf all else, elevating what could have been just a bloated action flick into a deeply human foray through despair, betrayal, regret and hope.

And I would argue that, incredibly, the most important character is one we never meet: Cobb’s late wife, Mal. Her exquisite, malevolent, dream-scape doppelganger is as disarmingly tender as she is ruthless, a walking maelstrom of Cobb’s unrealized desire and bottomless guilt. We never see Mal as she truly was, even in his claustrophobically preserved memories. And yet, by the end, I felt that I both knew real-Mal and wanted to know her better.

But how?

How many times have we seen movies where the main character is driven by the death of a loved one? So many. How many times have we seen the loved one, alive and well, before the life-ending disaster? Almost as many. We’re used to that set up—almost desensitized to its commonness. But there are far fewer movies where the main character is believably driven by the death of a loved one, who never actually or accurately appears in the story, whether in the present moment or a memory. So how do you make viewers care about a wife who died before the events of the movie, whose memory-fueled avatar is entirely corrupted? Why do I care about Cobb’s guilt and barely bated misery? Why on earth do I care about Mal?

I can point to a single moment.

When Arthur and Eriadne study the use of paradox in a clean, high-tech building dream-scape, Eriadne learns that Mal is dead. Her shock is followed by a tender question—what was Mal like in real life? Simply and sadly, Arthur says,

“She was lovely.”

It seems innocuous. But that line told me all I needed to know, in order to feel the absence of real-Mal acutely; to sense that something great and truly beautiful had been lost, long before the depiction of her death and before I learned the story behind it. The dream-Mal never says a word that Cobb’s guilt-ridden self-conscious doesn’t say again and again, or that he didn’t say to her when she was alive. So how can Arthur—someone who was less intimately connected to her—deliver so much truth about real-Mal?

Joseph Gordon Levitt’s tender acting is powerful and there is always weight in having another character remember the person in question, but his word choice is key. Marion Cotilliard and her gorgeous wardrobe are an intentionally stunning combination, so we already know by now that Mal was physically attractive, meaning there is so much more to Arthur’s choice of the word “lovely.” He doesn’t mean she was lovely to look at—she was Lovely. Her external appearance was lit by an even deeper beauty. Only this explains the suffering-feedback-loop to which Cobb willingly subjects himself, in his effort to keep her memory alive.

She was [truly, deeply, imperfectly] lovely.

Now, that’s a gut punch.

As someone who writes first from an emotion then uses that momentum to drive my plots, I am ever looking for new ways to get great feeling across with little effort. This is a movie moment I like to watch over and over, because of how it shows a partial puzzle of a key character, the missing pieces of which you will never find. It makes you wonder about the character’s power in life, if they can cause such upheaval in death. It has power in its silence, in the quiet left behind by three words. It leaves you to fill in the blanks. It begs the question, Who was she?

And I write for that.

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