jakesp8’s review published on Letterboxd:
You know, I wasn't even going to go to see this as part of The Belcourt's heist series originally. I'd seen it in theaters, after all. But I saw a trailer at one of the other screenings and was tempted, so I redeemed my ticket. I'm so glad I did.
Three things stood out most to me. One I'm sure I noticed at the time but had since forgotten is how good the action is. Not surprising with Nolan, but still nice to be reminded. Another, I'm pretty sure I only picked up on rewatch (give me a break I was 13 last time) is how much the first half is set up like a traditional heist flick.
But the third thing, the subject of this lengthy post, I know I did not notice on first viewing: how perfectly Nolan sets up the unclear ending. Spoilers within, I suppose, though I think everyone knows this ending by now.
My thinking goes like this: If Cobb is ending in a dream, he ostensibly had to get there somehow, which suggests an architect. (I suppose he could be in limbo, still but I don't think it reads that way for reasons discussed below). He's given Ariadne all of the information she'd need to construct a perfect dream for him, including her seeing his home in his earlier dream and him explaining his token to her. Nolan gives the pieces to get to her constructing that ending for him for him. Not to mention you never really see him and Saito going back all the levels, so waking up on the plane could read either as just waking up or starting in the middle of something since we don't know how he got there.
I do think he'd have at least gotten out of limbo on the first go. We don't see it, I don't really see how one of them doesn't die when Saito remembers the deal and if one does they both would since no one else is in the room. (That is, if Saito shoots himself Cobb can go get the gun and kill himself too, and if Saito shoots Cobb, he is going up anyway. I suppose we aren't sure the gun gets used, but that much is strongly implied.) That begs the question of why he'd end up back in a dream instead of just going home, but Saito never actually proves he can get Cobb off the hook, he asks for a leap of faith. So maybe they get out and no pardon is available. Or maybe he shoots Cobb and stays in Limbo. Who knows. But I do know there's a lot more to it than is the top spinning.
Here's the thing, the fact that Ariadne knows his token means that the question everyone asks (is the top about to fall?) doesn't actually answer whether he's dreaming. It does seem notable that his kids don't seem to have grown much, but then again their voices did still sound pretty young on the phone and we don't know exactly how much time has passed between when he had to run and the events of the movie. The same goes for his father-in-law meeting him at the airport. We never saw Michael Caine learn the plan, but he did know there's a job on to go back home. Would he know to be there? Hard to say!
Nolan is a master of structure, so it makes sense that his finale comes down to more than meets the eye, but this viewing was really a pleasure. I'm going to enjoy mulling this one over for a while. Not to mention, of course, that the effects rule (given how much discussion the right and wrong time for CGI gets lately, I thought it was nice to see it used to perfect effect here), the score is scaled right for the production, and I guess the actual story was pretty engrossing too, while I'm running through it.