Director/Coscreenwriter: Christopher Nolan
By Roderick Heath
My antipathy for British-gone-Hollywood director Christopher Nolan and his brand of filmmaking—top-heavy, arrhythmic, moodily ambitious, yet often strangely hollow—has threatened on occasions to become irrationally intense. But it’s hard not to react vehemently when he receives such popular adoration in comparison to the modestly plastic virtues of his films. To his credit, as displayed by Inception (2010), Nolan is one of the relatively few directors in Hollywood who has been trying to use the modern industry’s financial resources, technical teams, and special-effects warriors with a sense of creative wonder to assert will over the personality-erasing tendencies of the CGI houses, and make them serve a fresh vision. The various sequential stunts of Inception were certainly sound and fury signifying nothing, but they were marvellously made sound and fury. In his best film to date, The Prestige (2006), he managed to bind together his themes in a tale where the trickiness actually managed to stand in for the emotional binds and sadomasochistic competitiveness of his characters.
But always, in scratching the polished surfaces of Nolan’s films, the same disappointment. The silly plot gimmicks. The leaden dialogue. The confused, contradictory, and just plain gutless concepts that profess to populist profundity. The declarative placards of theme, character relations, and emotions in place of convincing dramatic depictions of each. The attempts to sustain high style ruined by muddled, even random-feeling filmic syntax. Just as Inception turned the psyche into a place of ponderously literal video game rules and sucked out all hints of sensuality and polymorphic possibility, so, too, his versions of Batman have reduced the iconography of the original comic books and other takes from surrealism-infused pop art into more theoretically realistic fare that feels no actual responsibility to realism.
Looking back at my 2008 review of The Dark Knight through the prism of a second viewing, the film fell apart for me, and I wish I had written a harsher commentary. Still, I concluded with a line that, in light of the new film, is relevant:
It may take a new, revved-up Catwoman to drag a reaction from this Batman that doesn’t sound like he merely needs a cough lolly.
The Dark Knight Rises does indeed sport a new, revved-up Catwoman, though she’s never referred to as such, in the lissom form of Anne Hathaway (more on her later). The Dark Knight Rises sees Nolan’s franchise reach ever more optimistically for a mantle of epic import, and to be fair, the scope of its story does in some regards justify such aspiration. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) finds himself not only up against marauding supervillains, but also his own aging body and calcifying emotional reflexes. For eight years, Wayne’s been hiding out in his rebuilt mansion, having officially retired his Batman alter ego and let it take the blame for the murder of DA Harvey Dent and the deaths Dent caused in his lunatic final hours. Now Wayne limps around on a cane in a Howard Hughes-lite routine. Meanwhile, his former collaborator in crime fighting, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), has become Gotham City’s police commissioner. Gordon harbours guilt over the way a lie was used to venerate Dent’s name and enact the Dent Act that has seen Gotham cleaned up at last. During a political rally held at Wayne’s estate, but without his participation, cat burglar Selina Kyle (Hathaway), posing as a waitress, breaks into Wayne’s private safe and lifts both his mother’s pearl necklace and a set of his fingerprints. Wayne catches her in the act, but she casually knocks him about and slips away in the limousine of a congressman (Brett Cullen).
Wayne and his admirable Crichton, Alfred (Michael Caine), swiftly track Selina down, but she proves to be not simply a free agent, but enmeshed in a conspiratorial vortex where rival businessman Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) is trying to take over Wayne Enterprises and bankrupt it at the behest of hulking mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy). Bane was once, and may still be, linked to the League of Shadows, a terrorist organisation whose boss, Ra’s al-Ghul (Liam Neeson), trained Wayne and whom Wayne turned against in Batman Begins (2005). In one of the most ludicrous action sequences I’ve ever seen, Bane kidnaps scientist Pavel (Alon Moni Aboutboul) from a CIA rendition plane in mid-air by rappelling from another plane, and it was all to make it look like Pavel died in a crash. Bane then sets himself up in Gotham’s sewers to stage-manage the destruction of Wayne/Batman before subjecting Gotham to a punitive purge.
Wayne, who has expended most of his fortune on developing a fusion reactor that he mothballed when he learnt it could be turned into a nuclear weapon by Pavel, is left further shorn of his previous privileges as his company is bankrupted by Bane during a raid on the Gotham stock exchange. Soon, his belongings are being repossessed, and Alfred, afraid this time Bruce is biting off more than he can chew, abandons his boss mid-fight. Wayne gets Selina to guide him to Bane’s hideout, but this proves exactly what Bane wanted: he traps Wayne, beats him to a pulp, and breaks his spine before exiling him to the same don’t-say-it’s-Afghani prison where Bane himself once resided. Bane is then free to terrorise Gotham, setting off bombs all over the city, bringing down bridges, clogging up tunnels, and managing to trap most of the police underground, cutting Gotham off from the outside world, and taking it over as a supposedly revolutionary city-state.
As per one consistent flaw in Nolan’s screenwriting (penned as usual with his brother Jonathan), he writes about 10 characters and three plot threads more than he can handle. Chief amongst the busy sprawl of supporting figures is John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt), a young rookie cop who grew up in a home for orphans once funded by Wayne Enterprises. Early in the film, Blake invites himself to Wayne Manor and reveals that he’s guessed Wayne is Batman because he’s noticed before that Wayne, like him, wears a mask of courteous contempt for the world (if it was that easy, shouldn’t there be at least a few more who have made the link, including Gordon, who’s still oblivious to the point?) and wants him to rejoin the fray. In another development, Alfred deliberately hurts Wayne by stating Wayne’s great, deceased love Rachel Dawes was planning on marrying Dent rather than him. Caine almost makes this poorly written and emotionally incoherent moment (is disillusioning Wayne and leaving an existential void where his romanticism used to be supposed to make him less likely to commit to a foolhardy course of bravado?) work purely by the force of his time-tested emotive quaver. Wayne seems to barely notice his life-long companion’s departure: Caine does return for a few seconds towards the end, with a show of emotion that sadly only made me want to wince for the ham-handed reintroduction. His place is momentarily filled by the agreeable form of Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate, an investor who seems to stick by Wayne in his travails, agreeing to help get his reactor working again—both the one he’s built and the one in his pants. Mendelsohn’s Daggett is cringe-inducing as both a piece of acting and of characterisation.
Normally, as anyone who reads my commentaries regularly knows, I go with the flow of action films: they are, after all, partly about their own absurdity, their freewheeling insolence towards the laws of physics and human feeling. But I find myself critiquing to different rules when the filmmakers obviously want to cloak themselves in a mantle of down-to-earth immediacy and relevant meaning, and when audiences so nakedly want to reward them for lending a tiny bit of viability to their adolescent fantasies. The film does some stunningly jerky, artless leaps of storytelling—or rather story-stating—early on, including Blake’s confrontation of Wayne and Wayne’s locating of Selina, chiefly so it doesn’t have to bother detailing such moments in a procedural fashion; that would demand care in staging. These are marvellous examples of Nolan’s info-dump idea of exposition. Even more clumsily handled is Selina’s “kidnapping” of the congressman, whom she brings as a cover to a meeting with Daggett’s slimy interlocutor Stryver (Burn Gorman, who suggests a middle-management edition of Skelton Knaggs) and still moans in lovelorn fashion after she abandons him on the floor, dazed and…what, drugged? Hypnotised? Shagged into perpetual confusion? Anyway, Selina will later be arrested and incarcerated for this crime.
On a realistic level, the plotting and story development of The Dark Knight Rises ranges from the infantile to the frankly stupid. To name a few plot holes the size of small moons: Why is Bane’s method of snatching Pavel and faking his death so ridiculous? Why doesn’t it take about 30 seconds of solid police work in conference with some decent computer operators to find out what Bane did in the stock exchange and hack in to reverse it? How does Bane get Wayne to the prison? How does Wayne get back into Gotham after escaping the prison? Why is it that they can get enough food and supplies down to sustain 3,000 trapped policemen, but it’s so hard to get them out? What’s up with that whole trapped policemen thing, anyway? Can’t the highly trained police officers think of a better battle tactic than to march in ranks up a narrow street facing automatic weapons? Why did Wayne chicken because his reactor could be made into a bomb? Was that so frightening, as opposed to the several thousand other nuclear bombs and fission reactors in the world that could be put to the same use? So, after having one’s back broken, it only takes a bit of clumsy quack medical work and some push-ups to come back as a fully functioning superhero? I’m sure all the paraplegics in the world will be happy to hear that. I dare say there might be explanations for many of these points (and I’m sure someone’s just eager to tell me), but it’s clear that The Dark Knight Rises isn’t interested in clarity, but in relentless forward motion.
More to the point, Nolan still has no fundamental feel for the expressive rhythms of a film. Whilst all of his movies revolve nominally around emotional cruxes—romantic and familial tragedy are at the core of Memento (2000) and Inception and part of the background fabric here, whilst ferocious jealousy drives The Prestige—these seemingly vital aspects always remain sketches for empathy and involvement rather than the real thing. It’s like a 12 year old writing a tale of grand romance: we’re told what it is, but it is never felt. The Dark Knight Rises is supposed to tell the story of its hero’s complete fall before, yeah, rising. Which would be all well and good, except that Nolan and Bale’s Batman remains a blank space where a hero should be. The motif of his proving insufficient to take on Bane lacks force because Bale refuses to suggest any undue cockiness, frantic determination, or any other specific emotion to fight his insecurities apart from terse resolve. Similarly, his struggle to rebuild himself after Bane’s shock-and-awe annihilation of his physical, fiscal, and social prowess lacks any real moment of despair, of bottomed-out feeling or self-indulgent sorrow. Wayne lolls about in his prison bed and looks hairy and dour and then, a few push-ups later (crying out to be scored over with Team America: World Police’s immortal “Montage” song), is ready to try to climb out again. Nolan belabours rather than extracts any kind of thrill from Wayne’s repeated failures to escape. Critic Simon Abrams intelligently compared the insufficiency of these sequences with a forebear in John Frankenheimer’s French Connection II, but I’d rather cite a better superhero movie.
In spite of all the heady camp buzzing around its hero, Superman II (1980) still manages to offer up a singular scene where the newly human Kal-El is suddenly faced with his loss of strength, his unutterably human degradation, after he’s beaten up by a common barroom lout, spitting blood and attempting to maintain his good humour even as he trembles with pain and fear now that the world doesn’t bounce off his skin. By comparison, Wayne’s struggles here are so perfunctory, mechanical, and lacking personal passion that he seems far more alien than Superman ever has; Nolan can’t give us such a simple, well-felt emotional refrain. The Dark Knight Rises is less a work of epic storytelling than a three-hour montage—an approach that could be exciting if the montage work was at all about stretching the cinematic form, but here serves only the cause of pummelling event and exposition. It’s all too tempting to conclude that for general audiences, storytelling as an art is dead; they are now into the era of stuff happening, and lots of it. There is so much incident, it becomes incidental.
What can one say about the pretences of The Dark Knight Rises? Class war and anger are repeatedly invoked throughout. Selina is a demimondaine who has risen through thievery and possibly prostitution; her garb hinting at kinky exploits, she’s repeatedly seen hanging around with Jen (Juno Temple), more clearly a hooker and, judging by the way she hugs Selina at some points, something more for her. Bane and his fellow villains are the spirit of the oppressed surging for a spot of nihilistic insurrection. The French Revolution is clearly invoked as the wealthy are assaulted and dragged from their houses, a Bastille-like prison is broken open to release its criminal occupants, and citizens chosen as enemies of the people are given trials clearly meant to evoke the worst moments of the Reign of Terror. These parallels fascinated me deeply, chiefly because they reveal how pig-ignorant Nolan is of political history and how easily he can get away with assuming that of his audience, too. At one point, Gordon reads out the concluding passage of Dickens’ French Revolution novel A Tale of Two Cities, but unlike Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which used that book to invoke the transcendental glory of sacrifice for a common good, this film’s common sacrifice turns out to be a fake. More specifically, Nolan buys into Dickens’ knock-kneed English liberal vision of the Revolution as badly shaven creeps in seamy, raffishly worn uniforms dragging random citizens to trial in an orgy of bloodlust, and bypassing the specific background of political paranoia, war, and high-profile defections, which turned the Revolution’s moment of transformative energy into a grim spiral of political homicide.
Not that there isn’t a good film to be made channelling the Revolution’s example into a contemporary context, but as in The Dark Knight, Nolan pays only the merest lip service to actual political relevance. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Bane and the League of Shadows have no genuine political programme in mind: they are determined to exact…revenge? Punishment? Ritual cleansing of perceived sins? Anyway, they actually intend to destroy Gotham and themselves in an auto-da-fé via the fusion reactor-bomb, an act which makes the rest of their actions pointless. Why don’t they just set the bomb off at the start and leave a big smoking hole in the ground where Gotham was rather than jump through all these ridiculous hoops? I could buy it if their kangaroo courts were being broadcast for the sake of inspiring fear and loathing in places other than Gotham, but they aren’t: they’re just giving their opponents time to rally against them. Rather, their intention is an act of nihilism, which frees Wayne and his allies in the police force and the system they maintain from any culpability, for the opposition is reduced to a perfect bogeyman of inchoate nastiness, and, by implication, anyone opposed to the settled order is seen as similarly, childishly, wantonly destructive. In short, the vision of good and evil proffered in these films is, far from being more ambiguous and questioning than the usual run, actually every bit as black and white as any cornball grayscale print from the ’40s. The key moment of disillusionment, when Bane reveals the truth about Dent to the city’s populace, has no apparent result.
Perhaps this could be handled in a way that suggests more a conflict of essential spirit— communality vs. anarchy, group will vs. individual, etc.—but I’d still like it to make a lick of plot sense, and the film’s flat-footed imagery and insistent literalism doesn’t communicate it as symbolism, anyway. The constant pseudo-biblical invocations of the villains are meant to sound very impressive, and they do admittedly call to mind the similar language of Osama Bin Laden and others of his ilk. But in the real world, the use of such phraseology tends to be deeply entwined with less abstract concepts, like resentment over historical injustices and inequality, whereas here there is no substance standing behind the statements. The process hinted at throughout these films, that the name “Gotham” is actually standing in for “America,” is now completed. Whilst the opening scene seems to cast a livid eye on the brutality and risky morality of the War on Terror’s renditions, the film goes on to conflate the Dent Act, which is in danger of being repealed or expiring through lack of interest, with the Patriot Act, and just at the point where it seems irrelevant, a handy threat comes along to revalidate it. At last, the martial defenders of order must reassert authority and cohesion in the face of terrorists who are either domestics left out of capitalist triumphalism—the army of orphans and outcasts Bane has assembled—or hazily foreign insurgents who have spent formative years in that prison in “one of the world’s more ancient countries.” So, under its surface, the depiction of Wayne as the toppled tough guy who must overcome his privileged coddling to get back on top becomes as naked a metaphor for resurgent American triumphalism as Rocky IV (1987). Selina, who styles herself as a Robin Hood of the underworld, ultimately has to make a choice between the sides, and goes with the guy with the shit-hot car.
Incoherent and suspiciously conservative-pandering political dimensions aside, The Dark Knight Rises could still work, if given room to breathe, as a fable. That is, essentially, what Nolan is trying to make, in spite of all the trappings. In this regard, he does make it part way to the heights he’s after, especially in the all too obviously symbolic climb Wayne has to make to escape the jail. (In yet another instance of Nolan’s weak visual exposition, he never bothers to analyse for the eye why escapees can’t just keep climbing up the safety rope they have tied to them instead of having to make a dangerous leap to a distant ledge.) In a pretty nice bit of narrative switcheroo that would be worthy of one of The Prestige’s protagonists, the child we’ve seen escaping from the prison proves to be a girl rather than a boy: Talia al-Ghul, alias Miranda, the real engine behind Bane’s efforts, born of Ra’s’ lover in the prison where she was cast by a warlord. Bane was her jailhouse protector and surrogate brother, a late touch that finally gives Hardy’s hulking villain role a touch of pathos. Bane has the body and mask of a Mexican wrestler, the accent of a James Bond villain, and the wheeze of Darth Vader. Nolan clearly wants to endow him with something of the mixture of gentlemanly cunning and perverse intelligence and feral ferocity of a good Bond opponent, but Hardy is awfully hamstrung by having to communicate personality through said mask. Cotillard similarly barely registers in her role, betraying the Nolans’ permanent embarrassment in contending with the intimate in her romance with Wayne. She does at last find purpose when her villainy is revealed, but by that very late stage, it can only be exerted in the most blunt and curtailed of expressions.
Nolan’s sense of scene grammar and expositional logic haven’t improved: characters go in and of focus, disappear for long stretches and then come back with a startworthy suddenness, travel around the world in the blink of an eye, and turn up where they shouldn’t be. Cillian Murphy’s Jonathan Crane, alias The Scarecrow, from Batman Begins, turns up presiding over the revolutionary court out of nowhere. Presumably, he’s been released from the prison, but he then disappears, his presence just another momentary diversion for the eye that feels a little like a Laugh-In sketch; here come the judge, indeed. Selina tells Wayne that she’s led him into Bane’s trap because she’s afraid his men will kill her, and Stryver does indeed try to do that, but later Selina is able to move among Bane’s cohorts and even give orders to lesser underlings: why and how she can do this is again left frustratingly fuzzy.
In spite of the general problems with his filmmaking, Nolan does have a talent for weaving together some striking individual scenes and movements, and here is where The Dark Knight Rises ultimately does offer interludes of nagging power. Batman’s first return to the fray is a little rousing, and Nolan goes to town in the lengthy sequence in which Bane’s plan begins to move, commencing with his breaking of Wayne, and then moving out for a spot of mass terrorism, causing grandiose carnage at a football game that sees, like some particularly malicious gag from The Simpsons, a player making a dash for the goal line only to turn and see the entire field and his fellow players swallowed into a crater. Here, at least, Nolan’s perpetual-motion editing strikes the right notes of frantic dissolution of order as Gotham falls to its conquerors. Hans Zimmer’s score works best here, too, though elsewhere it combines with the barrage of sound effects to form a wall of bullying, Pavlovian noise. Ultimately, whilst it clearly wants to rise to the level of the Star Wars films and the best moments of James Bond’s long franchise, The Dark Knight Rises felt to me more like the capper for another pop phenomenon I could never warm to, The Matrix Revolutions (2003). Like that film, it attempts to sustain the superstructure of a genuine saga, and yet still manages to wind up with a fist fight, preluded by Batman and Bane swapping the most laboured taunts I’ve heard in all my born days.
What does finally keep this film afloat, however, is Hathaway’s presence and performance as Selina. It probably won’t prove as much of a lightning rod for neo-punk fervour that Ledger’s Joker did, because the sex appeal of spunky female characters so often tends to get in the way of more general appreciation and because she’s less of a gnomic force. But in many ways, Selina is an even better play on the familiar comic book character, transferring her essential spirit from the sources intact. In her inevitable skin-tight outfight and dominatrix heels, every inch of her is deadly in one fashion or another: in one of the film’s wittiest moments, one of Dagget’s henchmen asks her, “Do those heels make it hard to walk?” Selina promptly cripples him with a kick of those wicked spikes and asks ever so coldly, “I don’t know, do they?” She alone finally brings to Nolan’s series something of the essentially Freudian edge of the comics, where every character feels like pieces of a schizoid personality, the feminine, criminal flipside to Wayne’s masked warrior, a perfect mirror-mate. Whilst not as keenly self-aware as a self-constructed icon of antipathetic sexuality as Michelle Pfeiffer’s great incarnation from Batman Returns (1992), Hathaway sharpens to a point the character’s sense of impudent humour and strident, self-willed individuality, as well as her edge of fetishist provocation. In so doing, she gives The Dark Knight Rises some desperately needed comic relief and the Dark Knight himself a desperately needed personality, by dint of having enough for two. The only problem is that Nolan doesn’t always know what to do with her: Selina disappears from the movie for a great chunk of running time, and she’s almost buried under a heap of unnecessary gimmickry, like her efforts to get hold of some doodad that can erase her past. Finally, however, Selina gets to play Han Solo to Batman’s Luke Skywalker, coming back to save the day in the nick of time. In spite of her faint Sapphic associations and proclaimed contempt for good, she falls enough for our hero to share a marvellous farewell kiss with him, representing the first time in this series I’ve ever felt a hint of emotion with a protagonist. Selina is good enough a thief to steal the movie out from under everyone’s noses.