The Dark Night Rises - Washington Film Institute Review
First Published on WFI on July 18, 2012
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan; Story by David S. Goyer
Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Matthew Modine and Morgan Freeman
Produced by Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Charles Roven, Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan, Kevin De La Noy, Thomas Tull
Cinematography by Wally Pfister
Music by Hans Zimmer
Warner Bros.; DC Comics
Batman created by Bob Kane
By Matt Neufeld
July 18, 2012
Okay, everyone take a deep breath and relax: Director-writer-producer Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” which opens today, Friday, July 20, is excellent. The film is an above-average, suspenseful, epic-in-scope and wholly entertaining action-adventure, superhero, comic book and, to a degree, futuristic urban morality tale film about revenge, redemption, coming to terms with the truth and nothing but the truth, defeating horrifying evil at its most terrifying, facing your fears and your emotions no matter what, trust and honor, and doing whatever is necessary to directly and honestly face the best and the worst of the past, the present and the future in your life. Filmically, “The Dark Knight Rises” is well-written, well-acted, well-directed, and well-produced. You don’t even have to worry about the two-hour and 40-minute running time—much like the equally excellent “Lord of the Rings” films, the film steamrolls and barrels along at such a great exhilarating and whirring pace, and it’s so entertaining, the time flies by. And “Rises” is even worth the over-inflated admission price that studios and theaters charge now—everything’s up there on the screen, and it’s up on the screen in a professional, adult manner that doesn’t batter your senses, insult your intelligence, or give you the usual summer-blockbuster hammered-over-the-head headache.
Nolan and his now stock, regular cast and crew—most of whom also turned in equally excellent work on Nolan’s 2005 “Batman Begins” and Nolans’ 2008 “The Dark Knight,” as well as Nolan’s “The Prestige” and “Inception”–have achieved that rare feat of producing three excellent, above-average films that create one solid, well-connected and entertaining trilogy. That’s not an easy task in filmland. Even the great Francis Ford Coppola couldn’t do it with “The Godfather” films—for me, the third film was a huge disappointment, somewhat embarrassing, and completely unnecessary; the “Matrix” films fell apart about halfway through the second film; the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films should have stopped after the first one (really); and scores and scores of horror, science fiction, fantasy and other genre-specific films have fallen apart by the time film number-three rolled around to bored and yawning and often-angry audiences. The rare exceptions in the trilogy competition, in terms of producing three solid, good films, are the “Die Hard” films, which have actually resulted in four quality films (some may argue with that, but I like all four of them); the first three “Terminator” films (some may argue with number-three, but I thought it was a good film, saved by some amazing action sequences and the earnestness of the young co-stars); and, as noted, of course, the already-classic “Lord of the Rings” films from Peter Jackson and crew. Those are the rare cases, though—many film series probably should have stopped after the first, original film.
So we are quite fortunate to see “Rises” rise so regally, stylishly and classically to the occasion. Here you have, once again, like the first two in the trilogy, a mature, introspective and insightful, well-crafted film that manages to make you forget you’re watching a superhero or comic book or genre film. That’s because Nolan, co-writing again with his brother Jonathan Nolan, from a story by David S. Goyer, insists on, first and foremost among all the qualities of his films, a complex, layered, smartly-crafted story—and I mean story, yes, emphasized with italics. Nolan’s Batman films have presented real stories with real, classic story qualities—all of the classic story qualities that are present in the very best of films: plots and subplots that interconnect in expected and expected ways, traditional protagonists and antagonists who have real reasons for clashing with each other, more subplots that arise in surprising and clever ways that actually catch you by surprise and deliver gratifying payoffs, symbolism, foreshadowing, involved and even complex backstories that, again, relate to the subplots and plots in clever ways, characters who you actually like and care about and want to see succeed, villains, lovable supporting characters who provide important clues and additions and connections to the greater stories being told, and even romance, deep relationships among characters, and your standard action and adventure scenes that provide the relief from the angst, tension and suspense.
Over-stating the case in a simplistic manner? Not really, because the simple truth is that too many films today completely ignore these basic storytelling tenets, including many surprising films with a complete lack of likeable, sympathetic characters, and completely lame backstories and conflicts—which is a continuing mystery to most filmgoers. It’s not enough to just shell out ten bucks just to see some expensive special effects and gimmick affects and some regurgitated characters and stories and scenes over and over again. The real above-average films dig deeper in their storytelling—providing the elements listed above, yes, but providing those elements in a thoughtful and smart professional, adult, and mature that compliments your intelligence and makes you actually think—about the plot and all of its complexities, about the characters’ motivations and reasonings, about the background of the characters and how that affects their actions, and about the deeper human emotions and feelings that drive people to do what they do.
All of that, and more, are present in the Nolan, Nolan and Goyer Batman films, and that is why they have been so well-received, well-respected and well-attended, resulting in deserved Academy Award wins and nominations (among the most notable, Heath Ledger’s Best Supporting Actor award win for “Dark Knight”), and resulting in “Dark Knight” rising all the way to be the third-highest-grossing film of all time, until it was bumped to number-four by the undeserving “Avengers” mess from this year.
Thus you have the basis for what makes “Dark Knight Rises” so good—its intelligent storytelling. You can indeed mention the top-notch acting by a heavy-hitting, extensive cast of veterans at the tops of their respective games; the overwhelmingly gloomy, dark and claustrophobic urbanistic production design that paints a picture of despair that hangs over everything; the brilliant photography and editing that keeps the film looking beautifully dark and edited at that exhilarating pace; and the special effects that, again, are part of the tale and don’t overwhelm the proceedings just to show off; and Christopher Nolans’ confident, assured and layered direction. You can mention all of that, deservedly, but all of that springs from the storytelling—in this film, and in the first two in the trilogy. In the end, it’s all about the story.
In “Dark Knight Rises,” the story starts eight years after the end of “Dark Knight,” eight years after the controversial death of law enforcement crusader Harvey Dent, whose less-than-honorable death—prompted by Dent’s slide into insanity and his turn to the dark side–is kept under wraps by Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who is Batman for the few who may not know, and Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Batman and Gordon, at the end of “Dark Knight,” decided to conceal Dent’s turn to evil, keep Dent as a hero in the eyes of the public, and shift some of the blame to Batman, all in the name of preserving the peace and stopping crime. In “Rises,” the strategy has worked for eight successful years, as crime has dropped, Dent is put on a pedestal as a hero, and the jails are stocked with prisoners at a record rate. All appears to be well and good. Even Wayne/Batman has retired, with Wayne turning over the operations of Wayne Enterprises to Lucius Fox, and with Batman, now a wanted fugitive, in retirement.
But something evil is rumbling again in Gotham City, and it’s something terrifically evil: Bane (a towering, frightful Tom Hardy, channeling equal parts Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, Lex Luthor and a deranged Hulk Hogan), a refugee from the villainous League of Shadows, a disfigured psycho maniac hell-bent on revenge, destruction and chaos, and, while perhaps not even as psycho as Ledger’s terrifyingly insane Joker from “Knight,” still a terrifying terrorist who causes even the worst of his henchmen to quiver in fear.
Bane wants nothing less than to “break” Batman, exact revenge on Batman and Gotham, and, well, literally destroy all of Gotham with a nuclear bomb. Some confused, wayward recent observer in medialand said that Bane’s intentions are not clarified or explained, but that’s literally missing the plot points—Bane’s intentions are indeed stated and explained, in wonderful storytelling, and those intentions and motivations provide the material for one of the aforementioned backstories that contribute to the layered, clever, overall story. While Bane works his various maniacal puzzles and machinations to take control of Gotham with an army of heavily-armed thugs, Batman must deal with a cat-burglar Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, bursting out all over the screen in one of her best acting roles, and that, too, is not overstating the case); some emotional dealings with his inner circle; a Gotham falling apart; a depleted corps of police officers; a ticking time bomb, a decreasing circle of supporters for Wayne and for Batman; a new Board Chairman at Wayne Enterprises; and other new Board Members whose intentions do not appear to be completely honorable. Too much going on? Not really. Again—all of these various plot points are cleverly, smartly merged and connected to create a story, and a film, that continues to build in angst, dread, terror, tension and suspense. There are requisite twists, turns, surprises and rollercoaster rides, all presented in a manner that may be complex and layered, but is not confusing or difficult to follow.
Bale presents a suave, cool and calm, but conflicted and psychologically damaged, Bruce Wayne. His Batman is again a whirling physical, technological and intelligent force that remains an essential one-man army against the forces of evil. There are the usual gadgets from the ever-faithful Fox and the usual pep talks from the ever-faithful butler and all-around right-hand-man Alfred (the great Michael Caine, yet again stealing the film from everyone else), and the earnest, supportive pep talks from Gordon, but Wayne/Batman remains a conflicted, dark and depressed character, and those conflicts are what make Wayne/Batman so interesting. Bale succeeds in expressing these conflicted emotions, even behind a mask as Batman, and acting through a mask is no easy task. Using his voice, his eyes, and his physical presence and agility, Bale brings Batman and Wayne to life, on heroic and anti-heroic levels. Hardy, too, overcomes several possible difficulties—always wearing a mask, talking through an electronic device that distorts his voice, and at times being simply a deviant, tortuous and sadistic psycho—by using his eyes, his physical presence and his physicality to present a level of craziness that, again, brings to mind the Joker, but doesn’t quite reach that level. But Hardy does manage to be a menacing, towering and terrifying villain that provides a challenging counter-balance to Batman’s good-guy earnestness.
Freeman is steady as Fox, Oldman continues a great characterization that plays against type in a continually surprising manner, Hathaway turns in one of her best acting performances, and, as mentioned, Caine just steals the show. His Alfred is a father-figure, a mentor, a caretaker, an educator, a coach, and a guardian angel. At times, it’s wrenching and difficult to watch the father-son interactions between Alfred and Wayne, but that realistic portrayal of yet another complicated relationship in the Batman world is what makes the interaction between the two characters so interesting to watch. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is strong, assured and confident as a police detective who is dogged in his pursuit of Wayne, Batman, Bane and general corruption in Gotham. Matthew Modine as a police official and Marion Cotillard as the new Wayne Enterprises board chairman turn in strong supporting performances also.
Christopher Nolan keeps things constantly rolling forward with his usual bag-of-tricks direction, taking audiences in unexpected directions, keeping a deft mix of action and drama, and continuing to get the very best acting performances from his stellar cast. He also stages action scenes with confidence, making sure the action has a purpose and occurs at just the right moments. He also has a knack for staging huge crowd scenes, employing hordes of actors and extras—big street fight scenes, big party scenes, big crowd scenes, big shootouts, big car chases. But, again, these action scenes and crowd scenes are always presented as part of the story, it’s rarely gratuitous, and it’s always exciting and inserted at just the right times in the story. Hans Zimmer provides his original, pulsing music accompaniment that constantly starts out low and slow, and then builds faster and faster as the action and suspense accelerate—which is what action movie music should be doing.
It does help to have seen the first two Batman films in Nolan, Nolan and Goyer’s trilogy, because the stories from all three films do connect and continue in “Rises,” but if you haven’t seen the first two films, contact some friends who have seen them, get the basic backstory, and go see “The Dark Knight Rises” anyways—you will have a great time once you know the overall story. Christopher Nolan also made it a point to shoot “Rises” in film—not in that cold, unhuman digital format that’s ruining much of the newer films—and it shows—the film has that great, gritty, realistic and pleasing film look. Actually, filmmakers are making a huge mistake by switching from film—something is lost in the creative and visual transition with the stark, cold, unartistic digital look. Nolan also wisely avoided anything having to do with the over-used, already-tired 3D gimmick—a tired gadget whose time actually ended just as it began. So those are yet two more reasons to see this film.
Emotions naturally run bittersweet when a particular cast and crew end their run with a well-executed trilogy and move on to other projects. But I wouldn’t despair for the future of this film series—or any other film series, for that matter. Nolan’s superb trilogy actually followed four previous Batman films that were released from 1989 to 1997, a Batman movie from 1966, a Batman television series that ran in the 1960s, and Batman movie serials that were released in the 1940s. Superman was a television show, then a series of films in the 1970s and 1980s, then a new film in 2006, and now a 2013 film, “Man of Steel”—produced by—well, what do you know—Christopher Nolan—and written by—well, what do you know—David S. Goyer.
So don’t cry for me, Gotham and Metropolis. You just never know when any superhero will begin, rise, or return again.
Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.
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