You have to admire Christopher Nolan. Count him among those few Hollywood directors alluded to in an earlier post who can prop up a tent-pole film franchise with minimal artistic compromise. Nolan is also among those few former indie directors working in Hollywood with the fortitude to maintain his voice in the corporate machine of mass-consumption filmmaking. In the Dark Knight Rises, his third film following the comic book hero Batman, he finishes his trilogy with a giant flourish that never forgets its humanity. The film has a visually symphonic quality so brilliantly composed, it makes its near three-hour runtime fly past. In this day where filmmakers seem to pander to the continued shortening of attention spans to produce a film of such a runtime at Warner Bros. is a feat in itself. But the film also offers so much more. The key to the film’s brisk pace lies in Nolan’s unsentimental cutting of scenes, the invested performances of his actors and an ingenious plot design (whose major twists you will not find spoiled here).
Though the story of the Dark Knight Rises unfolds along the classical dramatic curve of screenwriting made famous by Syd Field, Nolan knows how to push it to edgy extremes and stay with it. When Batman and his beloved Gotham City seem to arrive at their nadir, the twists never relent, all the way to the film’s final frame. Watching the Dark Knight Rises unfold feels like watching an elaborate sculpture form out of an intricately laid out array of toppling dominoes that span an array of directions and double back. You can tell Nolan has learned a lot from his last film, Inception (2010), whose story of dreams within dreams wrapped in a mystery-heist-thriller, also probably owes a debt of its own existence to Nolan’s reputation as Batman’s current cinematic creator. Most everything that happens in the Dark Knight Rises feels connected and warranted. As he has firmly stated in interviews, this marks the end of his trilogy of Batman films, and it makes for one heck of a finale. The Dark Knight Rises even has an ending nearly as good as Inception.
Nolan inherited the Batman franchise on somewhat shaky ground in his career as an indie director gone Hollywood. He burst onto the mainstream’s radar with Memento (2000), a film with twists in its narrative structure so visceral it could leave an audience member dizzy by the end credits. However, a remake of the Swedish thriller Insomnia (2002) followed. It felt so devoted to the original, it left many with a “why-bother” shrug. Somehow Nolan was next handed the keys to Batman, after the famed DC Comics hero was re-envisioned from sixties-era camp to stylized Gothic hero by Tim Burton and then run into the ground by Joel Schumacher who would miscast a glut of distracting Hollywood stars.
With Batman Begins (2005), Nolan would re-write the degree of sincerity warranted to a form of entertainment (the comic book) invented to amuse teenage boys in the early part of the 20th Century. Until Nolan, Hollywood had long treated the comic book film as disposable entertainment. Even the Burton films feel slight in comparison to what Nolan created. Nolan instead focused on the gray areas that had long kept comic books alive with adult readers in the 1980s, when the term “graphic novel” appeared, as well as trailblazing independent comic book publishers that explored more grown-up dimensions of character and society.
Played by Christian Bale, Nolan’s Batman felt tortured and haunted. But beyond the characters, Nolan knew how to incorporate social malaise as part of his Batman stories. His second Batman film, The Dark Knight (2008), famously examined the moral compromise of a country spying on its own citizens in the wake of President George W. Bush’s administration policy to wiretap citizens without a warrant (read this). Meanwhile Batman’s antagonist was the nihilistic Joker, whose sole motivation for violence was to have a laugh. Heath Ledger would go on to win a posthumous Oscar® for his portrayal.
Picking up where the Dark Knight left off, the Dark Knight Rises brings a new nemesis into the mix along with another prescient story. Clearly inspired by Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the 1997 graphic novel written by Sin City’s Frank Miller, Batman’s alter ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne has gone into recluse mode. After Gotham City passes an ordinance that seems to put criminals in jail with minimal due process, Batman “retires.” The law, called the Dent Act, alludes to one of the other villains of the Dark Knight who ironically met his demise a martyr at the hands of Batman. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) used to be the city’s District Attorney, until his face was partially melted away by the Joker, turning him into the psychotically schizophrenic Two-Face. When Batman kills Two-Face to save the life of the police commissioner’s son, Batman takes the fall for the sake of Dent’s legacy and the passage of the law.
Enter the revolutionary: Bane (Tom Hardy), a misguided monster out to “save” Gotham from a perceived tyrannical rule that implicates the city’s wealthiest, including Wayne. References to class warfare abound. When Bane and his thugs terrorize brokers on the floor of the stock exchange, 98 percent of the audience will probably find themselves rooting for Bane.
The muscle-bound Bane almost shares as much screen time as Batman. He starts as an enigma who also wears a mask, which generates a tortured but eloquent voice, similar to Batman. His origins eventually come to light, and he becomes humanized to almost creepy affect, as a sort of echo chamber of all that seems rotten in today’s society.
Beyond Batman’s already established regular sidemen Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Wayne’s father-figure butler Alfred (Michael Caine), the film introduces several new characters into the mix and takes time to flesh them all out with conflicted characterizations, one of the best, next to Bane, being Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). Dumping the campy dominatrix quality of the Catwoman in Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), this Catwoman grows from ethereal mystery woman to a creature of charm and heart. But another delightful introduction into the mix is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an ambitious “hothead” of a rookie cop, John Blake. Both Hardy and Gordon-Levitt make returns from Inception, as does Marion Cotillard who plays Miranda, a cipher of a character more complex than she at first seems. Great performers are present all over this film, not the least of which is Bale himself who treats his Bruce Wayne/Batman with as much care as his portrayal of the real-life Dieter Dengler in Werner Herzog’s amazing and underseen Rescue Dawn.
Though the film sustains an edgy, dark tone with its drab, cold color palette, the Dark Knight Rises defines itself with action. The set pieces, including a mid-air plane hijacking scene that introduces Bane, takes one’s breath away. Nolan incorporates digital effects with subtlety among live-action stunt sequences (that plane scene!). Unlike most of these films, Nolan seems to skip out on the digital “stuntmen,” heightening the film’s realistic qualities and, in effect, the film’s stakes. Nolan also avoided the temptation (and probably the pressure) to shoot the film in 3D. It was however, partially shot on IMAX, so the bigger the screen the better.
Having long ago set the tone for the current new era of proper super hero films, there is little room for Nolan to reinvent Batman, however. It just as well may end here (though his next job happens to be as producer on the reboot of the next Superman Film). I should not fail to mention that the Dark Knight Rises is not without its action movie tropes. The film indulges in a couple too many monologues of righteousness between characters that these do-or-die action films tend to lean on for characterization. Also, as much hype was placed on keeping Bane’s plan for Gotham secret, the film should be docked for giving us another climactic “countdown” that’s almost de rigueur in action movies. However, it does redeem itself for revealing the flaws in the goals of the Tea Party-type (or Occupy) extremist Bane. His plan to “give Gotham back to the people” results in a terrifying portrait of anarchy that Nolan does not fear dwelling on for an effective amount of screen time.
Another crutch that seems over-used at first but later brilliantly subverted includes the bombastic mood-enhancement of Hans Zimmer’s score. It can get grating in its obvious quality during the beginning of the film. I began to worry how much longer will the film rely on the layering crescendo of an orchestra and the boom from a barrage of percussion to make its point that this is scene or that scene is DRAMATIC. Then there arrives this fantastic moment about an hour into the film when Nolan eschews music to nerve-wracking effect. It happens during the first confrontation between Bane and Batman in the sewers of Gotham. You almost forgive the initial overuse of scoring ahead of the scene where the only soundtrack is the sound of physical violence. The moment also includes a wise decision by Nolan to include momentary cutaways to a few scattered onlookers, most of which are Bane’s henchmen. Contrary to many of these moments in the good v. evil canon, they do not cheer their leader on, but watch with a quiet, cold, curious interest. It’s the accumulation of these small but definitive moments inserted among terse action sequences that make the film such an awe-inspiring thing to watch unfold.
My favorite of the four trailers available, as of this post:
The Dark Knight Rises is rated PG-13 and runs 164 minutes. You can catch it at any multi-plex right now in HD, 35mm and IMAX.