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.
- abby jean at Feministe: Fighting Ableism Fights Sexual Assault
- Latoya Peterson at Racilicious:Domestic Violence Isn’t Just About What Men Do To Women
- Feminist Frequency at Bitch: Tropes vs Women: The Smurfette Principle (Subtitled video with transcript)
- Maria at The Hathor Legacy:Inception, or Leo angsts about family and chicks
- Snarky’s Machine at Bitch: Five non-spoilery things about Inception