THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, But Not Quite High Enough

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, But Not Quite High Enough

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THIS PIECE CONTAINS SPOILERS. IN FACT, IT DEPENDS ON THEM. IF YOU DON'T WANT SPOILERS, DON'T READ THIS PIECE.

Christopher Nolan's selective use of naturalism and realism in his three Bat-films has always been a double-edged sword. His literal-minded representations of the character, complete with declarative speeches that leave no symbol, gesture, or character motivation unexplained, can be maddening. Nolan's films’ biggest successes come from their massive scope. But The Dark Knight Rises is a half-baked success, a finale whose ambitions ultimately exceed the Nolan brothers' abilities.

The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years after the events of The Dark Knight (2008). Bruce Wayne has hung up his cowl as Batman to reinforce the myth that Batman killed "white knight" district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). The decision to hide the real reasons for Dent's death—he was driven mad after his face was scarred in an explosion, leading him to become the monstrous villain Two Face—supposedly weighs heavily on both Wayne and Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman), but that is something we are more often told than shown (more on this later). Still, this secret is the sticking point for criminal mastermind Bane's (Tom Hardy) plans to discredit Batman and "break" his soul.

Much of The Dark Knight Rises' colossal 168-minute running time is spent watching Bane's plan come to fruition. But The Dark Knight Rises isn't all it aspires to be, because its creators fumble key establishing events, many of which are needed to convincingly establish the film's grand scope. For example, all three of Nolan's films use dialogue excessively to spell out what each character represents. While Batman Begins has a self-serious charm which is smothered by the Nolans' need to psychologically enrich the character through lame, posturing dialogue, The Dark Knight Rises often feels emotionally skimpy.

As has been noted elsewhere, the skill of the actors in Nolan’s films often carries the weight of their emotionally heavy dialogue. In this film, Christian Bale's performance as Batman and Anne Hathaway's as Catwoman are both impressive. However, the most chatty character is Tom Hardy's Bane, a guy who sounds like the descendant of Kenneth Mars's character from Young Frankenstein. Bane's speeches are not only sometimes hard to understand, they're also stilted well past the point of credulity. The scene where he reads Gordon's speech before freeing and arming the inmates of Blackgate Prison, a facility erected with the help of the Harvey Dent-supported, uh, Dent Act, is a dud. It’s a dud for a couple of reasons, chief among them its excessive fixation on the mechanics of what it is trying to convey, to the point where it fails to give good reasons why it’s necessary in the first place. Do Gotham City residents really believe that much in Dent and his heroic image, which Wayne and Gordon helped to establish? If his martyrdom matters so much, Nolan should have slowed down and let the implications of Bane's speech sink in. He doesn't, however, and as a result, a crucial scene has little impact.

Bane's dialogue is flatfooted throughout the film. At one point, he tells Batman that he too was literally raised among the shadows; at another, he enters a room with the line, "Speak of the devil, and he appears." It's impossible, at moments like these, to take him completely seriously. Nolan and his screenwriters have no ear for juicy dialogue, so their villain just sounds like a maniacal windbag missing not only an impressive backstory but also the ability to gloat properly (his most dry taunt line has to be when he compliments the "very lovely" sotto voice of the little boy singing the National Anthem during the stadium scene). 

But again, the Nolans' characterization of Bane and The Dark Knight Rises' other key characters is not, in theory, off-the-mark. The script contains several reverent allusions to the way its characters have previously been portrayed in comic books. Two of the most apparent examples of this can be seen in the way that Selina Kyle traipses around with gal pal Holly Robinson (Juno Temple), a meaningless but cute nod to Frank Miller's portrayal of Kyle in Batman: Year One. But then poor execution makes an ostensibly huge moment such as the one where Bane breaks Batman's back by slamming him down over his knee (as he does in the now infamous Knightfall comic book story) feel weightless. There is no appreciable eye for detail in this scene, no sign that Nolan wants the big, spine-crushing moment of impact to be felt. If this is Bane’s triumphal moment, why does this moment feel so inconsequential? 

I don't just mean to ask why Nolan didn't make Bane scream longer or have Batman’s back crack in slow-motion. Instead, I wonder why he chose to follow this seemingly pivotal scene with one where Bane explains to Wayne that he will continue to break his "soul," lessoning the power of the moment where he destroys his body. Likewise, Wayne's rehabilitation seems more perfunctory than grueling. Nolan should have taken a page from The French Connection II's book and not been so impulsive when fleshing out these pivotal lulls between action scenes. The effectiveness of these little moments and details distinguish an epic narrative from an over-reaching one.

The Nolans fumble in a couple of other small but salient ways, mostly because they don't know how to modulate the pitch of their representation of the character or his world. The Bat, the plane Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) creates for Batman, looks like a flying tank. That sounds trivial, given that that's essentially how the Tumbler, Nolan's spin on the Batmobile, has been described. But when it whooshes in out of nowhere to break up a tense standoff between bedraggled policemen and heavily-armed Bane supporters, its clunky appearance really ruins the scene.

The same heavy-handed approach makes it hard to take Miranda Tate's (Marion Cotillard) character seriously. It might seem unfair to complain that Nolan did a poor job of foreshadowing the revelation that Tate is secretly Talia Al Gul, the daughter of eco-terrorist and arch-Bat-foe Ra's Al Gul (played by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins). But Nolan really does do a poor job here, both in foreshadowing the betrayal and conveying its importance. You don't have to be a fanboy to anticipate that Tate is somehow related to Ra's, given that she is initially defined in Rises by her pro-environmental politics, a position that defined Ra's in Batman Begins (2005). Bane is also repeatedly presented as a representative of the League of Shadows, the group Ra's led in Begins, even having Bane go so far as to insist that he "is the League of Shadows."

The obviousness of Tate's real identity is a glaring problem. Nolan likes to get his audience to focus so intently on breadcrumb-sized morsels of information that it's often very easy to lose perspective on what pattern he's establishing as he builds a story. We are meant to be impressed with the complex nature of Rises' narrative but its details, both on a micro- and a macro-level, are frustrating. The scene where Tate cozies up with Wayne by a fire establishes adequately Tate’s significance to Wayne by the time she betrays him. But the scene where she does betray him, by actually thrusting a knife into his back, is emotionally slack. Is Nolan so creatively constipated that he has to make Talia a literal back-stabber?

Or take a look at what Talia symbolizes in the grand scheme of things. The political subtext of Nolan's pseudo-timely Bat-films has always been willfully evasive, which is striking since almost everything else in these films is blatantly spelled-out. But here, Talia tells Wayne point-blank that she is a foreigner in Gotham's midst, an alien who was only posing as a native-born citizen. While surely one can tease out an anti-Obama message from this, what's most striking about this political attack is how incomplete it is. Nolan only seems to point out Talia's foreign-ness and Bane's foreign accent, too, as a means of pointing out that the threat to Gotham has arrived disguised as an ally to Wayne, Gotham's real native son. But again, so what? That kind of weird, self-evident xenophobia does nothing to enrich our understanding of who Wayne is or why Batman is needed as a symbol for Gotham. If the answer is simply that he's not a mean false friend with a chip on his shoulder and a goofy accent, then maybe it's a good thing there won't be a fourth Nolan-directed Batman movie.

Then again, apart from good supporting characters like James Gordon and Joseph-Gordon Levitt's John Blake, the Nolans do get one central character just right:Hathaway's Catwoman is, for the purposes of this last film, mostly well-realized. Her trepidation in her fascination with Wayne is largely believable, and she makes for a decent bad-girl-turned-good. But even this characterization is only relatively successful. The camaraderie that serves as the foundation of the Wayne/Batman and Kyle/Catwoman is more than believable in the scene where Catwoman half-leads Batman and half-struts into Bane's midst at Batman's request. But once Catwoman slinks back into the shadows and lets Bane take control of the scene, her passivity becomes unbelievable. It's hard to believe that a character who later appears to have suffered from serious pangs of guilt would, in that key moment, watch and not even recoil forcefully while she watches the man she just betrayed get his back broken. Even the stuff the Nolans get right in The Dark Knight Rises is frustratingly imperfect. Here's hoping that the creators of the next Bat-tent pole are a little more flexible and a lot more detail-oriented.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

CANNES 2012: John Hillcoat’s LAWLESS

CANNES 2012: John Hillcoat’s LAWLESS

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“It is not the violence that sets men apart. It is the distance he is prepared to go.” Old west pragmatism oozes through the gruff words of Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy), the 1930s bootlegger and all around bear of a man at the center of John Hillcoat’s Depression-era gangster film, Lawless. One of three brothers profferring booze to Chicago gangsters from their country Virginia stills, Forrest is seemingly indestructible, a local legend for his endurance and survival. The same cannot be said of his younger sibling Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the embodiment of American ambition, who becomes a human punching bag when faced with the slightest conflict. Surname aside, Forrest and Jack couldn’t be more different in size and nature, and they come to represent contrasting visions of Manifest Destiny crashing against each other through family.

Parallel to the battle between tradition and progress runs a sturdy Western theme, and Lawless imbeds the fear of economic expansion in the nuances of brotherly resolve. Ultimately, the two men must confront their ideological conflicts when urban corruption and violence invade the Bondurant’s small town of Franklin, in the form of a corrupt D.A. and his hired gun, a reptilian neat freak named Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). This subtext makes Hillcoat’s brutal violence all the more potent. Forrest’s consistent use of brass knuckles on adversaries says a lot about his desire (and ability) to end fights quickly, protecting his family and profit margin with little fuss. In this sense, Lawless uses the gangster film genre to defend the virtues and returns of protecting a small business from corporate takeover.

Loyalty and revenge dominate the film’s mostly messy narrative arc. But convention is only a means to an end for Hillcoat, whose contained vision of Prohibition-era America lingers on intimate details of human suffering; dirt hitting a coffin face, the fluttering of scorched leaves propelled into the air by a dynamite blast, and the gurgling blood from a slit throat are all reminders that Hillcoat’s cinema is equally brutal and poetic. Also, the Great Depression may not be the film’s central focus, but the disparate souls littering the roadsides further remind us that life outside the gangster universe is equally gritty, if not more dispiriting. These images are often juxtaposed with Nick Cave’s brooding score.

Both Hardy and Pearce’s superb method performances deserve the attention they will inevitably receive, and LaBeouf nicely realizes a balance of tenderness and sleaze. But ultimately, Hillcoat sees performance as a way to induce mood, a way to explore landscapes and interiors through an actor’s physical stature. One of the more wonderfully blunt examples of this approach comes early in the film when infamous gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman) stops his speeding car on Franklin’s main drag, walks calmly up the boulevard, and shreds his pursuer’s vehicle with Tommy gun fire. Jack witnesses the shootout from close range, and the slight grin Banner gives him while calmly walking away speaks volumes about the near-mystical divide between gangsterdom and reality.

While Lawless goes astray during an odd prologue mired in voice-over, it’s a genre film with many bold ideas and characterizations. Hillcoat’s ongoing deconstruction of backwoods legends, something he and Cave began to address in the grimy, sweat-soaked The Proposition (2005), takes a more sobering and human turn in Lawless. This is the American outback in all its bloody glory.

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.