Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012) -- B

The level of "epicness" (misused by many a fanboy, mistaking simply a literary genre for a laudatory claim) has been amped in The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan's nearly three-hour trilogy capper, though the degree of success the larger-scale storytelling brings is certainly debatable, given the stockpiling of characters new and old, and vacillation between post-continuity action sequences and smaller, mostly exposition driven dialogue scenes (the Nolan bros. dialogue remains predictably on-the-nose, though not as egregiously as in Oliver Stone's recent Savages). And yet - my personal interest with this film (and Nolan's trilogy, in general) lies less in accessing the merit of his adaptation, in narrative terms, than it does in analyzing the peculiar, elusive combination of visceral and banal that has come to constitute the bulk of Nolan's oeuvre. He wrings (or attempts to) feigned significance from tone and affect, rather than diegesis. His Batman films, though believed by many to be brilliant for their storytelling prowess, have always been more impressive, in my eyes, for their emphasis on paying reverence to classical, continuity style (Griffith, Ford, Hawks, at least when looking strictly at narrative forms) while altering those techniques (in TDKR's case: parallel editing, Eisensteinian montage, ellipsis) to fulfill the tendencies of most post-9/11 action cinema towards a fragmented temporality (recently termed "Chaos Cinema" by Matthias Stork). TDKR has a foot in both realms, as it were, entering its spatio-temporal matrix with the corporeal tenacity of a silent epic, but the disillusioned sense of space belonging to fellow post-continuity enthusiasts Michael Bay, Tony Scott, and (the worst example) Paul Greengrass.

Nolan's interest in form must eventually supersede a discussion simply of narrative - one which prizes Modernist storytelling, utilizing literary devices from said period like foreshadowing, understatement, and, at times (though not nearly frequently enough) irony to weave together its character arcs, agendas, and motivations with clarity. And yet - it's this clarity which often negates the film's purported "dark" tone, since darkness necessarily lies in behavioral ambiguity - something TDKR comprehensively lacks (aside from its plot twists - the weakest form of effective revelation). Batman is crippled (physically and emotionally, oh how metaphysical!) from taking the Harvey Dent murder wrap - putting Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) out of commission for the last eight years. John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), an investor set on absorbing Wayne Enterprises, jokes early on that Wayne "is holed up with eight-inch fingernails and peeing into Mason jars," - a rather clever in-joke for Nolan followers, who has stated that his dream project is a biopic of Howard Hughes while holed up for months in his screening room - all while Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) fumbles at the microphone and with Deputy Commisioner Foley (Matthew Modine) in explaining the truth about the night Harvey Dent died all those years ago (cinephiles note the name of Modine's character in Full Metal Jacket: Private Joker). Meanwhile, stealthy maid Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is busy roaming the grounds in search of Wayne's fingerprints (we later learn they are needed by Daggett), all while sure-to-be femme fatale Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) stands around, in exposition mode, detailing her plans for the city's clean energy, which can be achieved with a prototype device being manufactured by Wayne Enterprises. Oh - did I mention all of this comes after the opening sequence where a masked mercenary (and forthcoming Gotham super-villain) named Bane (Tom Hardy) stages a mid-air hijacking and blood transfusion, as to gain control of nuclear physicist Dr. Pavel (Alon Aboutboul), whom he needs to control and operate the device Miranda Tate also seeks to gain possession of? Lest we even discuss rookie beat cop Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose earnest idealism and interest in re-instating an underfunded orphanage (he's was an orphan too, just like Wayne, natch) are intended to provide the film with a moral center. Nolan manages the characters well enough - but he has mistaken convoluted for complex, as the dialogue scenes that connect the more interesting action sequences are written to a pulp, especially some early scenes between Alfred (Michael Caine) and Wayne, with each beat and potential consequence explicitly out in the open.

Multiple viewings reveal the care with which the Nolan bros. planted lines, scenes, and a fair share of red herrings to give nearly every action meaning within the context of its not-so hermetic universe (characters often speak lines that deliberately bleed over into real-word political/social issues). Nolan is proficient at layering his narrative with subtle hints that potentially offer subsequent reveals - but he's often simply maneuvering through the proceedings rather than imbuing them with tangible conviction or significance. What does TDKR really mean or have on its mind, besides feigning zeitgeist pretensions? Ultimately - not much, especially since Nolan isn't able to show the purported decadence that has sullied Gotham (such is Bane's claim), except for an Eyes Wide Shut-lite sequence at Wayne Manor, with guests sipping champagne and flashing their Venetian masks. Unlike Kubrick's best (or even recent films like The Social Network and Magic Mike), Nolan struggles to suggest something looming beneath his frame - an unspoken, semiotic terror. With Nolan, what you see is what you get.

Which is not to suggest that what we see (and hear) isn't often impressive and/or of significance. Nolan's work with composer Hanz Zimmer has taken a Wagnerian track throughout TDK and TDKR, assigning themes to various characters and giving sequences an almost operatic coda, to capitalize on the affective pull. Most compelling through all of this is Bane, as Hardy's ferocious, psychotic, but perversely detached, presence seems to belong in a different, more dangerous film. His dialogue and voice, clearly ADR'd and given a 360 degree presence, sound like an ironic, reptilian David Bowie, his cadence and emphasis lacking consistency as he emphatically and idiosyncratically shouts his mandates in front of various crowds - only he speaks with a degree of joyful detachment, seemingly deriving pleasure from the fact that he is unaffected by such heinous acts (nearly every line is immanently quotable/memorable, not necessarily for what Bane says, but how he says it). Hardy gives Bane an ambiguity that the film tries to snuff out through its insistence upon flashbacks and reductive dialogue, denying his character a more compelling moral ambivalence in favor of "pure evil," (or "necessary evil," depending on which character you believe).

Nolan lacks the artistry to give his film's something other than their immediate pleasures. TDKR zips by so quickly because it's all there, on-screen, which is why the film works fairly wonderfully in the moment, less so with subsequent contemplation. Such a qualification would extend to the film's form, excluding the initial fight sequence between Batman and Bane. Taking place in a sewer and the first face-to-face for the two characters,  it contains such bone-crushing, on-screen physicality and sonic variance (no music, sounds of water falling, Bane's piercing voice/claims) combined with visual prowess (light to dark, edits to longish takes) that it ranks among (if not at the top of) Nolan's most impressive visceral achievements.

Unsurprisingly, Nolan stumbles when having to cross-cut and establish a spatio-temporal basis outside of a single setting, as with the film's prolonged denouement, set predominately on the steps of Gotham City Hall. A basis for the sequence of shots is never properly (not to mention cleverly) established, which both stagnates and makes arbitrary each successive cross-cut. Made even worse are the disappearance and reappearance of characters without proper spatial explanation (one character is dispatched by another - but only after the latter character has been absent from the film for at least fifteen minutes, last seen miles away from where the concluding action takes place). Nolan has never had a firm grasp on the spatial dimensions of his cinematic worlds (similar problems exist in Batman Begins, Inception, and The Dark Knight). Moreover, the proceedings, while varying in effectiveness, lack the satiric cadence and gravity of the action genre's best. Even just earlier this year, Neveldine/Taylor turned Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance into a Carnivalesque whirligig of playful, but sincere affect, layering their ambivalence for pop cultural worship with a coherent, complex subtext of addiction, both literal and metaphorical. But Nolan makes some of the most compellingly empty films I can think of; he builds them from the outside-in, instead of inside-out, which helps to explain the peculiarity, but isn't quite satisfactory. The viscera responds while cognition remains dormant. Captivating for its duration and impressive for its visceral qualities, but lacking any consistent understanding of the human condition, TDKR's bizarro-normative demeanor is a quid-pro-quo affair - and such relatively thoughtless fetishistic supplementation almost always comes with unwanted side-effects.


  1. Good review Clayton. This is a very brave piece of work here given by Christopher Nolan and he shows that he can pull-off a near-perfect trilogy, even if a lot of people don’t want to see him go. Hopefully, this means he’s off to doing more original pieces of work like Inception or The Prestige.

  2. I personally enjoy the film more than it likely comes off in the review. I would call it a guilty pleasure - but other clearly aren't so guilty about their love (and I can understand that). I have many reservations but still love the film.

  3. I really did not like the film. Nothing resonated with the power than The Dark Knight or Batman Begins have on the audience. It was the film Nolan didn't really want to make but had to since WB spent so much money funding Inception. Ah well. At least something good came out of all of it.

  4. I really like the film, though there are numerous flaws. I have seen it four times. I would recommend at least twice, as the film congeals with subsequent viewings, even if a bulk of it remains underwhelming.

  5. I'm a huge fan of Nolan!! Batman is my favorite superhero!!

  6. Watched it again this weekend and you are right, certain points do congeal. In terms of commercial films that juggle so many characters, TDKR probably handled this problem better than other films like Raimi's "Spider-Man 3," Jackson's "The Return of the King," and obviously Schumacher's "Batman & Robin." That said, I think they could have eliminated two or at least one of the film's characters and had a truly great film on their hands. Did Batman really need to have two girlfriends? Did we really need that drama between him and Alfred?

    Also, Blake's explanation for how he was the only one in Gotham who knew Batman's secret identity was total bullocks.

    It's definitely important to see the film in IMAX. Even the fake IMAXes, due to the fact that when the frame is cropped for standard exhibition, Wally Pfister's screen compositions are totally ruined on certain scenes. I first saw the film in scope on a standard movie screen. That was a mistake.