Monday, July 23, 2012
The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012) -- B
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.