We're All Mad Here: Inception & Dom Cobb's Crazy Lying Dead Wife

Anna Pearce
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This post includes spoilers for Inception. It also discusses domestic violence.

There are multiple interpretations of Inception, but for the basis of this discussion I’m going to take the movie at face value. The central story is about Dominic Cobb needing to come to terms with the tragic circumstances of his wife Mal’s suicide. Once he is able to let go of his guilt and grief, he escapes limbo and comes back to his children. It’s a nice little metaphor about mourning.

The central scene that reveals the truth behind Mal Cobb’s life and death, why Dom feels so guilty, why he keeps her alive in his dreams, is extremely tense. We, through the eyes of audience stand-in Ariadne, are led into a room showing the aftermath of domestic violence. The room where the Cobbs usually spend their wedding anniversary has been torn to shreds.

The first time we see this room, Mal starts screaming for Ariadne to get out, screaming at Dom for ever letting anyone into this space that’s theirs alone. This matches all of Mal’s previous behavior. She’s been violent throughout, shooting dream-Arthur to torture him, stabbing dream-Ariadne in the stomach to force her out of Cobb’s mind. The dream-version of Mal is unrecognizable from her “real” self, who Arthur describes as “lovely.” Dream-Mal is crazy, vengeful, and violent.

When we return to this room, Dom is narrating how real-Mal had decided that reality was a dream, and that both she and Dom had to kill themselves in order to return to reality and to their children. In order to encourage Dom to join her in this plan, Mal decided to completely ruin his life so he’d have nothing to come back to.

So obviously she did this by launching a multi-pronged campaign to frame Dom for domestic violence and then murder.

You know, as one does.

Or, at least, as only crazy vengeful women in pop culture do.

Mal’s campaign is surprisingly effective. A letter lodged with their attorney saying she fears for her life, combined with the destroyed hotel room, is enough to convict Cobb of murder and keep him out of the country and away from his children for years. But Cobb and Ariadne (and by extension, we-the-viewers) know the truth: Mal committed suicide because she couldn’t handle reality anymore.

And of course that must be what happened. I mean, Mal was obviously crazy by that point, having been driven so by Dom’s actions. She must have faked a domestic violent scene and framed her own husband for murder. “She had herself declared sane by three different psychiatrists,” says Dom, making it “impossible” for him to try and “explain the nature of her madness.” She was crazy. Case closed.

Cobb’s explanation for what happened is completely unquestioned by the narrative, by Ariadne, and by viewers of this film. I read a lot of feminist responses to this movie, and none of the ones I read addressed the central premise of Mal’s death and Cobb’s guilt: That crazy-Mal faked domestic violence in order to frame her husband for murder.

Mal’s actions are an unquestioned event in a movie about being able to manipulate and control people by entering their dreams. Ariadne never asks if Cobb actually murdered his wife, and another character, Miles, also believes Cobb is innocent.

This story is believable because crazy women in pop culture lie, and crazy women in pop culture will do anything, even resort to murder, because they are crazy. We are never given another motivation.

Further Reading:

Previously: We’re All Mad Here: Of course we should dislike this character. She’s crazy!, We’re All Mad Here: Case Studies of Crazy Bitches in Cinema

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15 Comments Have Been Posted

I have often thought about

I have often thought about the fact that we perceive Mal entirely through Dom's recounting and memories, except for that one line from Arthur. I'll have to ponder some more... I feel like the recollected-Mal is not the same as the subconcious-Mal that appears in dreams to sabotage Dom. The recollected-Mal, as we see her in flashbacks while Dom tells the tale, is generally kind and loving, if sad - though she does have a loud argument with him about whether the children are real. The subconscious-Mal we see in dreams is all twisted up by Dom's guilt and his borderline inability to tell what is real and what isn't. Now, why his subconcious turned his beloved, intelligent wife into a femme fatale is another question - perhaps part of his anger at her for committing suicide? (intra-textual analysis moment)

I'm sort of talking this out, so please don't take my comment for negating the point you're trying to make.

"The central scene that reveals the truth behind Mal Cobb's life and death, why Dom feels so guilty, why he keeps her alive in his dreams, is extremely tense"

That is indeed a tense and dramatic scene, but it is not where we learn exactly why Dom feels so guilty. What is key for the whole thing (but also completely reliant on Dom's word) is that he planted the idea that eventually caused her to commit suicide. That's how he knew that inception was possible - because he did it to her. The entire story relies on that point. Which brings it back to the problematic "single-point mental illness" Owl mentioned here: http://bitchmagazine.org/post/were-all-mad-here-race-gender-and-mental-i...

The question is, I guess, could Nolan have structure the story so that Mal had another way to try and convince Dom to commit suicide instead of the whole DV/murder framing. I'm sure the answer is yes.

Small point - Miles isn't just another character - he is Dom's father-in-law and Mal's father, and the one who taught them how to go into dreams.

Good points!

I could not, for the life of me, remember if MIles' relationship to Mal was confirmed in the movie, but now that I'm thinking about it, it was. I'm on a bad computer for making edits right now, but I'll try to fix that later. Thank you!

You know, I think I figured the truth was revealed in that earlier scene because I'd watched the movie so many times that of course it was obvious to me on my most recent re-watch what Cobb was saying-but-not-actually saying.

"Now, why his subconcious turned his beloved, intelligent wife into a femme fatale is another question - perhaps part of his anger at her for committing suicide? (intra-textual analysis moment)"

I've read some good fic that addresses exactly that question. I know I should analyse the film by what's on the screen, but I think mostly the whole thing is wrapped up in <a href = "http://rachelmariemohr.blogspot.com/2010/07/deep-freeze-christopher-nola... general treatment of fictional women</a>.

In defence

I don't really understand what the issue is here. It is Cobb himself who drove her to that state of insaniy by planting the notion that the world they were in was not the real one, she didn't commit suicide because she could not take life anymore, it was because Cob himself had inadvertantly planted the notion that they had not gone back through all the dream worlds yet.

Surely Dom's creation of a 'crazy, lying wife' has something to do with his own guilt for leading her to her death. She's angry because he lied to her and he's trying to placate that guilt by creating a monster through which he can justify his actions, as he lost it all due to his meddelling with the dream world.

Due to this reasoning I think it is perfectly reasonable to have her act in this way. She believes she is acting rationally when she kills herself, and the logic is faultless as she believes she is freeing Cobb from the fake world.

It's not always necessary to assume the worst, maybe actually understanding the film would perhaps help when attempting to read it.

fie on people down on meta

"I know I should analyse the film by what's on the screen"

I think there is value in both intra- and extra- textual analysis. I mean, re-reading that link (thanks for including it!) the statistics are pretty damning. Storyteller choose to tell stories for certain reasons, whether conscious or sub-conscious. My poetry professor in college shared the theory with us that every one of us has one story to tell, and we tell it again and again in different ways. Now, I don't know that I agree with that, but Nolan seems to be choosing to tell some similar stories, again and again. He'd been working on Inception for something like ten years, so clearly it's a story that is important to him.

Another way to look at Inception is as an allegory for film making. Dom is the director, Arthur the producer, Eames the actor, Saito the studio head, Ariadnes the cinematographer (or something), etc. <a href="http://www.theawl.com/2010/07/the-key-to-inception-its-a-movie-about-mak... article posits that Mal is Dom's "muse"</a> - - which I think makes a lot of sense. That supports the interpretation of Mal as nothing but an impetus for Dom's pain and eventual evolution. Certainly, muses and Muses are typically personified as women, and fickle ones as that. And on a whim just now, I looked up the names of the Greek muses: the Greek muse of tragedy is named "Melpomene."

Despite repeated editing, I am not convinced that the previous paragraph is totally sensical. I hope you can parse my rambling.

Memento Spoilers Ahoy

Makes sense to me! I read that article right when the film came out and was excited to read <em>all</em> the discussions about it. It's certainly a film that allows a lot of analysis and discussion, which I really enjoy.

Nolan's repeated dead-wife/lover stories really bother me, and I think it's in part because I really <em>enjoy</em> his work. I must have watched <em>Memento</em> at least five times one weekend, and <em>Inception</em> really captured my imagination both when it first came out and since then. He's very good at telling compelling stories. I just wish that the women in them were more than impetus for action.

I also find it interesting that both <em>Memento</em> and <em>Inception</em> play with memory and dreams, and the ending of both films makes you re-interpret many of the earlier scenes with the main character's beloved (dead) wife. But both films also leave you with wives that are responsible for their own deaths because they doubted their husbands. In <em>Memento</em>, the dead wife wouldn't be dead if she had believed that her husband really had amnesia rather than trying to "test" him on it, and in <em>Inception</em>, Mal wouldn't be dead if she had just believed Dom that their word was real.

linky please?

I have never seen Memento! Sad, I know.

And I feel the same. It's like, damn Nolan, you are so awesome, but you know what would be even AWESOMER? Actual real women characters that don't die.

Also, I'd be interested in reading that fic you mentioned.

My take on Nolan's dead wives

My take on Nolan's dead wives plot devices is that he actually uses them to critique the use of dead wives as a plot device. Yes, very meta. Like in The Prestige and Batman Begins, the dead wives (dead mother in Batman's case) are otherwise forgotten as the characters become more and more obsessed with their ill-thought-out revenge schemes. Batman never really mourns his dead mother, does he? In Memento, Leonard alters his memories of his dead wife in order to change his personality. The dead wife trope is revealed as shallow and misogynistic because the main character is revealed to be shallow and misogynistic. Nolan's characters are all insane and self-destructive, leading them to displace their sexual drives onto other obsessions.

Inception (which I consider to be his weakest film) presents the dead wife plot device with a relatively straight face. That is, unless you consider the entire movie to be Cobb's dream in which case he's shown to be a jerk with issues with women and xenophobia and probably holds some not-exactly-right ethics. Sort of like Bond-lite, except Inception never really takes a step back to show Cobb as the jerk he is. Memento, on the other hand, has you unravel the mystery only to pull the rug right out from under you and change your perception of the protagonist.

I'm not all that sure about

I'm not all that sure about "Mal committed suicide because she couldn't handle reality anymore". It never seemed to me like she just couldn't handle reality, it seemed to me like she got seriously screwed over by her husband planting an idea in her head that completely flipped her understanding of what reality was. Those two seem like very different things to me, the first seeming more like a woman who was always susceptible to going crazy whereas the second seems more about a perfectly normal person being manipulated in a way that most people would be unable to detect.

And this isn't in any way trying to defend Nolan's treatment of women, but in this film I've always felt it easy to believe Cobb because of the fact that he seems to be slipping into a little craziness himself from his own guilt. It's why I've always found the theory of him possibly staying in limbo in the end somewhat believable. He seemed, honestly, like he was slipping off the deep end himself for what he did to his own wife. I don't believe he's actually stuck there because of all the dream level stuff and such, but were it not for that I'd think him capable of getting stuck there because his own mind was no longer healthy.

I think I sort of disagree with your thesis...

In the movie, it came across to me, in part, like Mal's setup was so airtight as to destroy Cobb *because* it would be incomprehensible and unbelievable that such a thing could be faked. The idea that Mal would have set up so comprehensive a deception would be too implausible for anyone to believe Cobb.

It works, then, into a motif of how far-reaching a single idea can be. How one seed of madness could be so insidious.

But that's just me, really, and I have a fairly strong tendency to overlook some elements of context and authorial intent.

I also have trouble agreeing

I also have trouble agreeing with the thesis, I agree with the 2 commenters above. I re-watched the movie last night specifically so I could comment on this post, and I do think that the whole point is not that she's just another "crazy bitch," she's been completely manipulated and doesn't know it. that's why Dom is losing it; he knows he's absolutely to blame.

Also, minor point, but in the film he has NOT been convicted. He knows he will be if he stands trial, so he chose to run before that happened. Remember, he talks to Saito (is that spelled right?) about the "charges against him" not his conviction or sentence. He got away before any trial could happen. So he's still saying that her deception is enough to get him convicted, but it hasn't happened. Again, it's a small point.

I'm not quite sure what the thesis of this article is

(Disclaimer: I have never seen the movie)
It seems sort of like maybe you're implying that there is also a reading that Dom really did hurt Mal and murder her? Or that nobody would ever really do the sorts of things she does that mark her as "crazy", and that we should question Dom's perception of the world because the actions seem too unbelievable to be true?

My biological father did this to my mother. No, not to the extent of framing her for murder -- but he repeatedly convinced psychiatrists and therapists that he was sane and she was not, and that she was the one abusing him, to the extent of making her question her own sanity. Having been on the inside, I believe my mother's side of this particular story.

Is the issue simply one of who was marked as the "crazy" abuser and who was marked as the sane one? I wonder if a similar genderswapped story would have people crying out that she has misplaced guilt (feeling guilty over being an instigator of the "reality break" that caused the behavior) because of COURSE she never deserved that kind of treatment. Do you think it would have been better if the genders had been swapped? If they had both been female? If they had both been male?

Support for my weird Inception theory!

I think that you're right on with this. My personal theory is that they really *did* need to go up another level, that they weren't actually in the real world, and that Dom for whatever reason concocted this narrative in his own dream world because he couldn't bear the thought that he might be wrong. How better to justify it to his own self-consciousness than to make her look like the worst and most destructive person in his world, taking everything with her in some sort of crazy delusional act? I think the whole "no one questioning anything" fits right in with this; in a dream, everything gets twisted to your end. (I have lots of other minutiae that I think supports my theory, but I'm not going there, haha.) So, yeah, whether or not you agree with my weird theory, <i>no one questions anything</i>, and I think that's so telling of how we consume pop culture and the crazy-lady tropes.

I'm not an Inception expert but....

There are really 2 Mals here. There is the "real Mal"- The one Arthur describes as "lovely", and then there is really the Mal of Dom's dreams who is, in essence, his memory of her or his internal creation of her- The one Adriadne runs into. I think this distinction needs to be made clearly in which Mal we are discussing. Dom's "dream personification" of Mal that exists in his own memory or dreams is *not* truly the Mal character. I mean, imagine how our own friends, families, and lovers would come to life if they were not really themselves, but our own creation of our relationship with them. Dreams are a context for the movie because things are gut level emotional, can be easily contorted, and are not inherently logical. So the Mal of Dom's dreams are not really her. They are his feelings and relationships personified. The "real" Mal is the one who exists/existed independently and was not an extension or creation of Dom's mind. Was SHE a crazy bitch? Well, the whole movie leaves lots of questions (for the love of GOD don't look on the interwebs for theories about if the top falls at the end!). I think "crazy" might fit because that is what they are essentially resisting throughout the movie with the totems and all that. But I'm not sure that the "real Mal" was a bitch. She was framing Dom in a situation she did not think was real so that they could be together. If that wold *wasn't* real, she would not have been a bitch, but just playing the dream game. They "killed" themselves all the time to wake up, and they frequently used external stimuli to remember the need to do that (other characters or the totems). But the idea that she died because she didn't trust her husband is a hard hitter for the feminist concern.

Yeah, I think the movie

Yeah, I think the movie acknowledges that Cobb manipulated his wife and is generally at fault.

I agree with the anonymous

I agree with the anonymous writer on Nolan's use of the "dead wife" trope in that the dead wife is not really a character like Ariadne or Dom or even Mal's father (who appears extremely congenial and concerned about Dom's well-being). The dead wife is a projection of Dom's guilt and anxieties, for whatever reason, I, like many others, can only speculate. I don't think that the particular representation of Mal is Nolan's definite stance on women - if you look at his past films, many of the male characters don't come off very appealing either. I personally prefer messier portrayals of characters in film and in art in general, even if it delves into the controversial realm of violence and women (I personally love the film Lady Vengeance). The more oppressive thing would be the constant affront with "role models" for a "proper" femininity in art.

While watching the film, I did not get that Mal was trying to "frame" Dom for murder at all. If I follow the argument of this article, I have to wonder why Dom would need to create this story at all, or what reason he might have to murder her.

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