Director: Christopher Nolan
Note: This review strives to be as spoiler-free as possible, though certain elements of the film’s larger plot – something which many have (understandably) tried to avoid – are discussed, albeit in a vague manner.
The legend does, indeed, end with The Dark Knight Rises, and Christopher Nolan has elected to send off Batman in his grandest and most frustrating fashion yet. Packed to the brim with big battles and even bigger stakes – not to mention years’ worth of narrative closure and a whole emotional landmine to navigate over the film’s appropriately epic 164-minute runtime – The Dark Knight Rises is, in academic parlance, “a lot.”
Most of it is quite good, but it pains me to say that “a lot” also includes muddy plotting, bizarre gaps in logic and choices in character that feel inexplicable for any kind of finale.
Now, this surprises no one more than yours truly. While I loved Batman Begins and The Dark Knight for many reasons, it was primarily on account of Nolan’s incredible talent for balancing multiple, intersecting plot threads with the requisite emotions and, most importantly, an unexpected glut of character work & societal relevance — all in the form of a “superhero story.”
Good news: When it comes to said emotions and said glut, The Dark Knight Rises might be his best work with the character. Even this hard-hearted mainstream cynic capitulated to overwhelming emotion whenever Nolan called for such a reaction. Some clunky dialogue and odd structural choices be damned, he’s observed the prior two incarnations to such a fine point, knowing how to play out his leads’ stories as a way of creating maximum impact. For the most part, at least.
The script by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, is always engaging if not always quite balanced. These storytellers are aiming to do so much in what’s, actually, so little time, that the commendable intent of creating an “overarching nature” often feels like a stranglehold. If anything, The Dark Knight Rises is the only superhero film that functions much more strongly when contemplated on a level of theme instead of narrative.
There’s stuff about a corporate takeover, an underground cult, personal reconstruction, technological marvels with catastrophic abilities, double-crosses, and societal insurrection during Gotham’s darkest period – once again, a lot. Much of it is entertaining, affecting, and serves the greater story in, yes, both a narrative and thematic sense. Some of these plot points, however, drop off for entire, grand stretches, only to come back after heaps of new information has been dispensed and we can’t help but have moved on.
(Exhibit A: No matter your thoughts on her character, Bruce Wayne overcoming grief and finding romantic kinship by way of Marion Cotillard‘s seductive Miranda Tate feels like a truly transgressive moment for him. Yet when other, more vital business forces him away from the sexual tanglings of a vaguely European minx, their eventual reunion can’t help but be, if not outright flat, a bit more underplayed than I would have preferred.)
But when The Dark Knight Rises works, it works. Nolan did not make a film that’s subtle by any reasonable stretch of the imagination but, in this case, that’s just fine. Rises, unlike its predecessor, does not necessarily intend to reflect our time and national consciousness so much as it puts everything under a magnifying glass. If you’re going to take it to a larger front than ever before, it’s only reasonable to play that kind of stuff on an operatic scale, too.
Yes, you can harp about the possibly perverted view of Occupy Wall Street – an event that was in full effect months after Rises was scripted – or the fascistic nature of Batman’s actions, but I take it as, much like The Dark Knight, a strange moral ambiguity that utterly shuns the black-and-white conventions of its genre trappings. (Bane’s taking a “99% approach,” sure – anyone should be able to pick this up – but it’s not the real-world version of this stance; it’s a worst-case-scenario perversion of this mentality.)
“Genre trappings” are also out of the discussion when the topic of lead performances come in — with one major exception. Otherwise, it’s only right that, by assembling the most impressive cast of his entire trilogy, Nolan also wrings out the finest ensemble of his entire career. Christian Bale, ostensibly the film’s star, does series-best work and, sometimes, supersedes what was handed his way; Bruce Wayne’s slightly questionable reasons for retirement are wholly carried across the finish line by his dog-eyed looks and broken physical stature. In two cases, the return of Batman is played as a full-on resurrection that he wisely interprets as one of the best things that’s ever happened to Bruce Wayne. It’s your job to decide if that’s not incredibly tragic.
But, to my surprise, it’s Anne Hathaway who steals the show from everyone else. This interpretation of Catwoman (only called Selina Kyle in the film) is the best I’ve ever seen; smart, lethal, funny, sexy and so, so adept at using all these characteristics to her own advantage. I don’t know how hard it is to sell this “heightened reality” spin on a cat burglar, but Hathaway, as a committed performer, could force you to buy it from top to bottom — i.e., if her written part wasn’t already the strongest female character of this entire series.
You know what to expect from Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, who ground the film’s spectacle in human interaction. And while that is in supply, The Dark Knight Rises could only use a heap more of that amidst the claustrophobic sense of storytelling. Despite Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s idealist cop, John Blake, tending to compensate for their smaller screen time because he’s played by a terrific actor – he helps some of the aforementioned dialogue issues go down a bit more smoothly, and the good stuff soars when thrown his way – the guy’s still a newcomer replacing old friends.
I wanted to see Gordon; I wanted more of Alfred’s emotional angst and fatherly guidance; Morgan Freeman is simply fun to have onscreen. These are not characters I have a world of feelings about – much of my affection comes from their position as storied performers – but cutting Alfred out of almost the entire film makes zero sense. Actually, no: it’s, without question, one of the worst narrative choices Christopher Nolan has ever made.
And then there is Tom Hardy. Almost his entire performance, from the stunning intro to his final shot, is delivered under a mask, the sort of aesthetic choice that requires him to deliver everything physically and aurally. (Even his eyes become hard to read when that thing is so visually prominent). It’s almost not a problem, and Bane not having enough of an onscreen presence and feeling like enough of a monster notwithstanding, that’s almost entirely the fault of Rises‘ script; Hardy moves with a horrifying confidence when dealing out death, selling every punch, fist grab and neck snap as though it’s an interpretation of Shakespearean language.
But that voice. It’s been piped up a good deal in the months since we all worried the film’s villain would be inaudible – this is another way of saying “you can understand him” – and you know what? He really sounds quite stupid. No mystery as to why, either, since the mixture of Hardy’s intonations, pitch and English accent make this all-consuming force of physical violence sound akin to how I imagine Mr. Peanut would carry himself in conversation.
Bane, on numerous occasions, feels just as theatrical as The Joker, but, whereas Heath Ledger‘s performance used shades of humor and irony to reinforce the character’s blinding insanity, Bane often feels like too much of a showman. How am I supposed to take his ringside entertainer reading of a decree whilst outstretching his arms and standing on a tank? Am I supposed to take it seriously?
It’s that odd fissure between good idea and actual execution that tends to hobble The Dark Knight Rises during its worst moments.
Be thankful for Hans Zimmer, who can still tie even the most mundane moments of Rises together in an entirely grandiose fashion with his loud, impacting, occasionally assaultive score. For me, these films have often been as much of an aural experience as a visual one, as themes glide over images and cues act as signatures for hero and foe. You no doubt know Batman’s by this point, but the Bane-centric chant (which sounds like “fishy pasta”) surprises; an unsettling, intimidating compliment to his visual appearance. But it’s really throughout that we get a truly masterful implementation of sustained notes and their brassy payoff that beautifully compliment Nolan’s increasing visual tension and the ensuing chaos (or relief) of Gotham’s central conflict. Zimmer goes out on top here.
And blockbusters never use this much destructive imagery to instill such a sense of horror. Yes, it’s silly when a giant machine makes a football field collapse into the ground – nor do I fear massive armies of jumpsuit-wearing criminals making their way down a city street – so it’s all the more a credit to Nolan that he can sell this, full-stop — and, at times, this hawking helps to pave over the worst narrative lumps. Bruce Wayne’s total absence during this stretch is the biggest example; that dearth of screentime is also The Dark Knight Rises‘ biggest flaw, yet it compounds a sense of draining hope that the entire third act needs to feed off of and thrive on. I just wish it could’ve been structured in a finer manner.
I should end by addressing what some might consider a slight incongruity between my jumpy thoughts and the relatively high grade, but it’s nigh impossible to describe the way in which this film – too cluttered though it is – created a “right” reaction in the pit of my stomach. Rare is the studio picture that, for nearly three hours, never feels as though it’s dragging, even during its more poorly-conceived moments; it’s because of Nolan’s overpoweringly epic and moving compositions – also aided in no small part by Wally Pfister‘s lovely gray- and black-scaled photography – that I was taken to another place. One that’s beat down, scary, violent, often without any semblance of hope, and one I want to revisit.
This is not the film my lofty expectations had me craving, but it’s one I’ll take. At the end of the day, it’s just a tiny shame Christopher Nolan couldn’t end his series on higher and more consistent note.
The Dark Knight Rises opens everywhere tomorrow.
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