Saturday, July 21, 2012

Knightfall: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

After Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight concluded with Batman (Christian Bale) fleeing into the night, taking the fall for a series of crimes so that Gotham City may still have hope, or something like that, it makes a certain amount of sense that The Dark Knight Rises would position the caped crusader as a public figure who has slunk away from the spotlight and is poised to earn back the city’s trust. There’s no such trust problem for this big-screen iteration of the famed comic book hero. If anything, Nolan has earned, rightfully or not, an astounding surplus of fan trust, a rabid kind of fervor that had a great many convinced of the movie’s perfection sight unseen. It’s to Nolan’s credit that the film doesn’t coast on franchise loyalty and therefore manages to avoid the major problems that typically befall the third entry in these sorts of series. It’s a movie of high-quality craftsmanship from all involved, nicely shot and terrifically staged. It's a startlingly big movie, containing sweeping establishing shots and grand gestures of spectacle (the better to maximize the added value of your IMAX tickets), a rapidly expanding ensemble of characters, and the most apocalyptic villainous plot yet. The film can’t live up to its own best moments, but it’s still a solid entertainment that builds to a tremendous finale.

In the murky rising action of this spectacle, a cult of angry anarchists led by a fearsome mask-wearing savage called Bane (Tom Hardy) are gathering strength and numbers, planning nothing less than a terrifying full-scale takeover of Gotham city, propping up faux-populist sentiments to mask their violent lawlessness, to use the leverage of a scared, powerless populace to get what’s best for a few reckless ideologues, all under the threat of mutually assured destruction. And where is the Batman while all this is going on right underneath the unsuspecting city? He’s slowly but surely getting coaxed back into his cowl, after living a Howard Hughes existence as his true self, Bruce Wayne, holed up in his mansion with only Alfred the butler (Michael Caine) to keep him company. And what’s the inciting incident that causes the Batman to climb out of his cave? Why, it’s nothing less than a daring robbery from cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). It might not take lifelong Batman fandom to figure out that she’s Catwoman, even though she goes without that moniker here.

That’s about as much plot as I’ll get into here, seeing as this happens to be a film that people seem particularly averse to having spoiled. It’s just as well, for the movie is indeed a large twisting narrative filled with lots of little surprises coiled around scenes of spectacular effects and effective tension. Let me just suggest that a great deal of the film’s pleasure comes from the new members of the cast. Of course Bale and Caine are solid as always, as are Morgan Freeman as Wayne’s resident technical expert and Gary Oldman as good old Commissioner Gordon. Of the new additions, Hardy’s Bane is fearsome, even though the design of the mask means his performance is mostly communicated through forceful eye acting and a muffled voice over in a stylized accent. Just turning towards the camera is enough for his intensity to crumple the surroundings in anxiety.

But best of the new here is Hathaway, who plays Catwoman as a sort of slinky Robin Hood by way of Han Solo, a mercenary thief and black market operative who is both a help and a hindrance. Runner up is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing an especially determined and skilled cop. Hathway’s take on her iconic character is that of a satisfyingly sleek, glamorous anti-hero. (I was ready to follow her Catwoman into a different movie where she could stretch out in a starring role). Gordon-Levitt’s part calls for steely professionalism and sympathetic humanity, both of which he provides quite nicely. And I quite liked the little twist given to his character in the final moments that caused me to strike a brewing quip about his role from my mental rough draft. The two of them add immeasurably to this world, bringing real vitality to what, let’s face it, would otherwise become insufferably dower.

At its best, this is a film of terrific blockbuster entertainment with charming asides and great flourishes of action, but for long stretches of this 164-minute movie, Nolan is grabbing hold of more ambition than he can wrangle as he gets bogged down in slow scenes of uncertain stakes and confused tension. In Bane’s evil plot grows a scattershot Rorschach test of tangled political messages that coast off of current unease and generate tension in odd ways that are at once potent and dispiriting. It’s hard to make out whether the film is a relentless fascist machine or just rotting cynicism underneath which lies nothing but nihilism. Either way, this is an extremely bleak film, through which the fun (the kind of sugary, lighthearted, propulsive excitement of The Avengers) pokes through like a small circle of light glimpsed from the bottom of a deep dark pit. Such a pit – a hardly-believable quasi-Middle-Eastern prison that works more as metaphor than literal location – makes a pivotal appearance in the lengthy middle section of the film that finds Gotham closer to ruin than ever before. Although Tom Hardy’s Bane certainly doesn’t make for as memorable a villain as Heath Ledger’s Joker – the script and character design simply don't allow it – his scheme, once it explodes into action, ups the all-consuming anxiety of Dark Knight until the only thing rising in this film is the sense of despair.

Perhaps it’s precisely because of the ways in which Nolan, no longer content to just use the series as a way to mix around with the iconography of Batman, scrambles ideology so thoroughly that the movie is so difficult to parse, so deeply unsettling. Here when a revolutionary rhetoric is twisted with evil intentions until chaos and anarchy in turn provokes a scrappy cop counter-coup, the resonances, as dissonant and confused as they are, become Triumph of the Will versus Battleship Potemkin, propaganda without a cause. Maybe Nolan knew that there was simply no way of satisfying the typical requirements of sequel escalation and superhero bloat and decided to steer his massive blockbuster right into the skid.

The film is, for quite a while, nothing less than a series of exceptionally well-executed extraneous noise and action. A prisoner’s mid-air escape from a plane, a couple of Catwoman heists, and the inevitable triumphant return from retirement for Batman are all early, satisfying, summer movie moments, but upon reflection they’re actually tangential to the plot. It’s not until a brutal mid-movie one-on-one fight scene, shockingly bone crunching and hard to watch, that I felt honest dread wash over me. But soon, the massiveness of the plotting sidelines one major character or another (in a hospital bed, in prison, or both at once) for what feels like ages. The film grows as fuzzy and slow as it is dark. But from there, Nolan nonetheless manages to pull out a startling and effective escalation of tension that becomes a series of exciting climactic action sequences. The film grows horrifyingly high stakes, blowing out destruction more vividly shot and more destabilizing in its implications than I could possibly have expected.

It’s difficult to think of The Dark Knight Rises in terms of the superhero genre. It hits all the right story beats, but it’s so oppressively grim, with only the faintest glimmers of fun, and far less Batman, at least before the massive and intense climax, than many will be expecting. What it represents is a filmmaker given total control to make whatever crazy ambitious blockbuster spectacle he felt like making and an assertion that he was the one who brought this big-screen Batman into this world and only he can bring this particular version to a close. (That said, there’s plenty of room left for a sequel.) He makes a Batman movie that brings the Batman legend, the tortured nature of the hero, the intense, incomprehensible insanity of the villains, and all those corruptible, flawed characters in between, to a depressingly, almost totally hopeless endpoint, into a climactic conflagration that’s unlikely to be easily matched. I’m not sure I’d want anyone to try.

The sparkle of hope that rises from Gotham’s rubble in the film’s final minutes is barely enough to wipe out the preceding barrage of paranoia and despair. The movie is too confused about its underlying themes, its plot too eager to make leaps of logic despite its otherwise dense build-up, to make use of its potent moods beyond that pure sensation of it all. It’s an impressive film, technically accomplished and overwhelming in many ways. But it’s so unrelentingly without thematic coherence that, for all the sensational spectacle, in the end it feels somewhat underwhelming. And that’s difficult to reconcile. Here is a film that at once thinks big and thinks small, mechanically creating grim spectacle for entirely surface reasons. Its best moments land with such confident grandiosity that, despite some shaky elements and disappointing moments, it’s still a film with an undeniable impact. At least this trilogy of Batman films doesn’t fade away in disgrace. It goes out with a big and mostly satisfying finale.

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