Film review: ‘Dark Knight Rises’ brings trilogy to a heroic end

Dark Knight Rises 20The Dark Knight Rises is filled with inevitability. Surely, it was foreordained that Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, Batman, would emerge from self-imposed exile if finally faced with a worthy foe. It was likewise assured that their fated confrontations would be as violent and relentless as the nearly three-hour-long, percussion-heavy soundtrack that accompanies director Christopher Nolan’s new film.

And given the near perfection of this movie’s immediate predecessor (The Dark Knight), the final installment of Nolan’s quasi-Wagnerian bat-trilogy also seemed destined to be a disappointment. It’s not. And for that, we have to thank Nolan, who managed to bring this epic series to a satisfying conclusion despite a cluttered and often confusing storyline.

Dark Knight Rises 6Credit also goes to the fine cast, most notably to Christian Bale (Wayne/Batman), who has infused the usually campy comic-book character with welcome doses of sensitivity and seriousness, and to Anne Hathaway (Selina Kyle/Catwoman), whose nuanced portrayal of the flexibly feline jewel thief makes her the breakout star of the film.

Nolan sets his third bat chapter in the future, eight years in movie time after the Joker’s delightfully atavistic reign of terror in part two’s The Dark Knight. Gotham is now a quiet yet strangely disquieting place, a Dickensian city that just needs a little push to become a full-blown dystopia. The metropolis is largely crime free thanks to a zero-tolerance crime law named for Harvey Dent, the crusading district attorney turned homicidal maniac who was killed in part two of the trilogy. But the city remains divided.

Gotham’s new law-and-order culture has made it safe for the One Percent to stroll along Park Avenue in fur coats. But life isn’t necessarily as cozy for the population at large, especially for all the little orphaned Oliver Twists who have lost their Wayne Foundation funding, and for the growing number of inmates in Gotham’s version of the Bastille. The city, seemingly at peace, is really just a tinderbox waiting for a spark.

Dark Knight Rises 17Enter Bane. Masked and muscled, this mysterious terrorist looks like he was plucked right out of Mad Max’s post-apocalyptic Australian landscape. Bane’s a brute. His favorite pastime, apparently, is wringing necks, an indulgence that he carries out with the insouciant ease of a farmer killing chickens. Nolan introduces him in one of the movie’s opening set pieces, a thrilling escape from an airplane filmed in glorious IMAX. The villain and his terrorist army then make a beeline to Gotham, where Wayne has been living in Howard Hughes-like seclusion as an invalid. The dual arrival of the seductive Selina and the seemingly unstoppable Bane finally forces Wayne out of retirement and back into the vigilante business.

British actor Tom Hardy seemed appropriately menacing as Bane, yet I still found his character to be a disappointment. Admittedly, almost any Batman villain is going to seem wooden next to Heath Ledger’s fabulously feral Joker. But unfavorable comparisons aside, there were other problems with Bane. For one thing, the Hannibal Lectoresque muzzle that Hardy was forced to wear all but neutralized this fine actor’s ability to convey any kind of facial expression. It also made him difficult to understand. “I … (inaudible) … cause you (inaudible) pain” was often all I heard (and, yeah, that was usually enough). But at least Hardy delivered these lines with an unfailingly cultured British accent.

A bigger problem was trying to discern Bane’s motivation – not to mention the fanatical willingness of some of his followers to die for no other reason than Bane says they need to die. I had no difficulty figuring out Ledger’s Joker. He was simply that dog that had to chase the car but didn’t know what to do with it when he caught it. Bane, in contrast, talked a good game about freedom, equality and fraternity, promising to return Gotham to the people. But he was no Robespierre, his French Revolutionary-style kangaroo courts notwithstanding. At best, he came across as just another nihilist who’s misunderstood his Nietzsche. Such characters can often cause great mischief, but they’re generally not effective leaders with fanatical followers. It’s hard to work up any enthusiasm for a guy whose real political agenda is to just nuke everything.

There were other shortcomings in the film. I found Nolan’s scene-within-a-scene storytelling technique to be confusing, and his tendency to shift focus on a whim to tell a backstory to be distracting. And although I am always hopeful that the latest superhero-movie-to-end-all-superhero-movies will invariably appeal to my inner 14 year old (sadly, not that difficult a task), I still found it impossible to suspend my disbelief during some of this film’s most inexplicable scenes. How Bane and Wayne, for instance, could be in Gotham one minute, and in some Third World Black Hole of Calcutta prison the next baffled me.

Dark Knight Rises 19Fortunately, Nolan had one secret weapon that was guaranteed to draw us back into the film – Anne Hathaway. Forget the souped-up cycles, tumblers and bat-hover-whatevers. Hathaway’s stiletto-style shoes were the most awesome weapon in this movie, and she wielded them with silky style. There have been many iterations of the Catwoman over the years, but Hathaway is the first to get it right. Somehow, she manages to be cunning, vulnerable and lethal all at the same time (and both to Nolan and Hathaway’s ever-lasting credit, we never once have to endure one of the Catwoman’s seemingly obligatory, tongue-rolled “purrrfections” during this movie). With Hathaway’s Selina/Catwoman, Bruce Wayne/Batman has finally met his match. As the Caped Crusader says after Selina disappears before his eyes: “Now I know how it feels.”

Bale gave an equally satisfying performance as the title character. In the two prior films, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Bale created a Batman for our time, a post-modern anti-hero who seemed to embody the moral ambivalence of the age. As a post-9/11 figure, this Batman didn’t need waterboarding or Guantanamo Bay. If he wanted to get a helpless, unarmed Joker to talk, he simply beat his brains out. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bale transforms this character. Increasingly throughout the film, Bruce Wayne’s thoughtful sensibilities seem to inform Batman’s actions. They are no longer discrete personalities, no Jekyll and Hyde. Batman begins to find his humanity, and so at the end of the film he’s able to make a plausible bid for good, old-fashioned Romantic hero status.

Dark Knight Rises 21The Dark Knight Rises gives plenty of face time to series’ regulars – both Gary Oldman (as Commissioner Gordon) and Morgan Freeman (as the ever-resourceful armorer Lucius Fox) delivered worthy performances. Michael Caine (as faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth) was especially memorable in several emotional scenes.

Dark Knight Rises 5Batman was left virtually friendless and alone after he took the fall for Dent’s death in The Dark Knight. So there’s room for the Caped Crusader to make new friends in the third film, which introduces the idealistic young police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) along with the exotic philanthropist and environmentalist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who for convoluted reasons has taken a keen interest in Wayne and his corporation. Gordon-Levitt and Cotillard are both outstanding.

One more positive point about The Dark Knight Rises: It may well be the most visually splendiferous superhero movie yet made. Once again, Nolan deserves credit, this time for heroically resisting the temptation of making the movie in 3-D, a technique that adds little to real storytelling and otherwise makes movie-going as expensive as a night at the opera – and I’m talking about opera tickets for the box seats. Nolan’s decision to film in IMAX, on the other hand, pays generous dividends. Action scenes unfold in unbelievably vivid color. And for once, Batman assumes a place on the screen that, visually at least, is worthy of his larger-than-life persona.

The Dark Knight Rises (www.thedarkknightrises.com) opens in wide release today (Friday, July 20). Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language, 164 min. Directed by Christopher Nolan; written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, based on a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Morgan Freeman.

*Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.