12:55 pm Jul. 20, 2012
Christopher Nolan has long insisted, in the face of Hollywood's imperialistic stultification, on making complicated, hard-to-summarize films with many moving parts and grandly “meaningful” ambitions.
No one has ever wanted to be thought of as “cerebral” as much as the director of Memento and Inception. The Batman films that he's made have been less gimmicky in their convolutions—no dreams within dreams or backwards storytelling—attempting instead something on the scale of a Victor Hugo novel or Wagner opera. But along with that comes all the bombast and shallowness of a Hugo or a Wagner, with their addictions to backstory and exposition, tinny melodrama, and characters whose sole purpose is to advance a stalled plot.
Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were guilty of all this. I suspect that Christopher Nolan's model is something like The Godfather, Part Two: intricate, character-driven, and profound but also huge, multi-tiered, and violent. The danger with that sort of thing is always of a “bad” complexity: like trying to navigate a set of assembly instructions, or explain who is married to whom on "All My Children."
Is The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan's latest and final venture in the world of Gotham City, out today, intricate, or merely complicated?
The problem is not that the movie hurls a formidable tangle of important-seeming plot points at the viewer: African coups, secret prisons, the kidnapping of corporate boards, fraudulent stock purchases, urban construction projects, and dubious nuclear physics.Your attention is constantly being directed towards the burning questions arising from all this information—names, schemes, geographical patterns—which seem all the more burning for their contemporary, “ripped from the headlines” feel. Readers of the news will pat themselves on the back for knowing about Mali, CERN, and Bain Capital, but this referentiality is ultimately a distraction. The problem is that the movie insists on the vital importance of each ball it throws in the air, and then never returns to catch it.
It is as though Nolan, for all the incredible virtuosity of his direction and editing, has reproduced at the level of plot what is most often criticized in contemporary action films: that the action sequences are cropped so close and cut so fast that they become impossible to follow. Nolan's massive action set-pieces, on the other hand, are things of beauty. It is the big arcs of suspense and theme which are cropped into an inscrutable sound and fury here.
What saves the movie from the weight of its own misdirection is, curiously, even more emphasis on detail: rarely has such care been lavished on minor characters in a blockbuster. Alfred (Michael Caine), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) are all drawn with unexpected depth. It might not be possible for any viewer to care about all these characters as much as their creator did: Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine have always seemed like one old sidekick too many, while the marital woes of a police commissioner are not exactly gripping. Gordon-Levitt, on the other hand, steals the movie as a young police officer who has read Bruce Wayne's secret identity in his very facade of dissembling confidence. Not that it is hard to steal a movie from Christian Bale. Like Bruce Wayne, Bale wants to disappear and be recessive, but his method acting succeeds too well.
The supervillain here, Bane, will not be as widely known to the public as perennials the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Two-Face, and so on. I would have thought that Heath Ledger's uncanny, perfect performance in The Dark Knight would be impossible to top, but Tom Hardy's Bane, even following in the footsteps of countless superfoes, is amazing and appalling in an entirely new way. Where the Joker stood for a kind of metaphysical perversion, cynically poking holes in the idealistic pillars of Gotham, even his obscene deconstruction had a sick honesty to it. Bane, similarly, wants to exploit the worst in people. But instead of exposing the covered-over baseness underneath what is best in us, Bane wants to feed what bubbles up as honest frustration. He is not unleashing an anarchic id, he is empowering bitterness to find the fastest way to a dead-end.
Bane's superbad plan, whose cyclopean turnings take some time to get moving, involves cutting off Gotham from its police force (who are trapped underground, to a man), the outside world (the bridges are blown), and Batman (exiled in some Prince of Persia-esque dungeon). Bane is bent on proving some arcane point about Gotham's innate moral worthlessness, to which end he empties Gotham's prisons, and sets up kangaroo courts to distribute some new indiscriminate justice. All the while a nuclear device is ticking, which ensures that the outside doesn't interfere with Bane's social experiment. But it is impossible to know if Bane's caricature of justice and popular rule are his pretext for blowing up the city, or an enforced confirmation of his own quasi-Tocquevillian point. In any case, since he is just going to blow it all up, the exercise seems redundant.
Bane's rabble-rousing also provides all the movie's most tone-deaf, faux-relevant soundbites. But who was to tutor the filmmakers in how to capture American popular thought? The screenwriters (the brothers Nolan), Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Christian Bale, or Marion Cotillard? All British or French. At least we were spared the fascistic imagery so worn out by Tron, Harry Potter, and The Avengers—as though evil could only take this obviously-recognizable political form from the 20th century. I will leave discussion of the movie's politics to others—I suspect that looking for any coherence here will be somewhat quixotic. Suffice it to say that Batman remains a disguised billionaire operating outside of the law: all allegories should start there.
Bane is such an incredible artistic feat, not only in conception but also in Hardy's bizarrely dubbed performance (a processed, amplified voice seemingly disembodied and merely concurring with Hardy's hulking body), that it is a shame that Nolan does not turn the movie over to him. Instead, we are taken back to the mythos of Batman Begins, a boring love story with Marion Cotillard (who is terrible here), and the filmmakers' own apparent love story with New York City's police force. But here the viewer absolutely knows to tune out, use the restroom, or fiddle with his or her smartphone. Seemingly aware of this, the movie signals Batman's triumphant return (and the beginning of Act III) with jarring obviousness, as to say, “Sit up. Pay attention. Things are going to get loud.”
Unfortunately, the deafening finale is also when Nolan decides to tie together all the loose ends and false identities and minutiae still dangling from an hour before. There simply isn't enough room, amidst the explosions, to collect one's thoughts and make all the connections that the script intends. It is as though the “Luke, I am your father” scene were intercut with the attack on the Death Star—the illumination feels trivial, suffocated by its noisy context.
Nolan has constructed such an elaborate mousetrap that when it closes, one is apt to be looking at the wrong part of the device. People might applaud this as ambition or as giving the audience a great deal of credit, but it is really the filmmakers' job to know what their movie is about. By dissipating the big “reveal” and turning attention away from Bane into any number of fussy digressions, I don't feel that Nolan is doing justice to the audience's intellect. It feels like he is just seeing what will stick.
The Dark Knight Rises aspires to be of its moment in much the same way that The Dark Knight appropriated much of the ethical pseudo-dilemmas of Bush-era torture and sovereignty. It succeeds only negatively. The piling-up of catastrophic priorities, a nail-biting impending doom that is however indefinitely pushed into a receding horizon, a staggering deafness to American passions that expresses itself in a flailing appropriation of every available gesture—these things I recognize readily. But these are the film's faults, its aesthetic compromises, not its criticisms.
Many people will tell you that it is a smarter, more artistic movie than this summer's other ambitious superhero film, The Avengers. Yes, but The Avengers tries at least to condense some superficial ills in a phoney all-star climax, offering a fantasy of resolution. The Dark Knight Rises only reflects back to the world its own messiness, substituting buzzy and referential gestures in place of critique or closure. Is that art?
More by this author:
- In 'The Master,' P.T. Anderson investigates spirituality, but mostly human imperfection
- Takashi Miike's remake of 'Hara-Kiri' falls flat, even in 3D