Film Review: The Dark Knight Rises

I saw The Dark Knight Rises at midnight, opening night. I have not written a review until now because I wanted to meditate on the film and gather my thoughts. Typically it takes at least 24 hours for the initial “wow” to settle down into a fuller opinion of the film.

Alas, this was the weakest of Nolan’s trilogy, and by a fairly wide margin. The initial satisfaction of Batman Begins is gone, and the impressive sheen of The Dark Knight is long past. This was Batman on story-fatigue. It is well known that Nolan didn’t want to get trapped into a franchise when he did Begins, and I worried that he would finally stumble in the sequels because he didn’t really want to do them, and because Nolan is not experienced at writing sequels. Everyone was distracted from the rather chaotic structure of The Dark Knight by the sheer flooring power of Heath Ledger’s Joker, certainly the highlight of the film and the performance of a lifetime. Nevertheless, Nolan’s difficulty in pacing TDK seems to have compounded on itself with The Dark Knight Rises. The story was really about five stories, the film desperately trying to pack enough material for two or three films into its nearly three hour runtime. The result was a hectic, helter-skelter interweaving of stories that didn’t particularly mesh that well.

The characteristic of Nolan is combining of vastly disperate elements into a single narrative that only really becomes clear at the end, with perfectly paced call-backs to previous points in the film overlapping and interlocking at the climax. The Dark Knight Rises had a disturbing lack of any of this. Sure, there was enough of it to be recognizable as vintage Nolan, but the whole didn’t want to come together in as-cohesive a pattern as we have come to expect from the likes of Momento, Inception, The Prestige or even Batman Begins. It seems to me Nolan didn’t really know where to go in this film, because it wanders more than the others, and when the lights finally come up after its more-than-ample run time, you marvel at how little seems to have happened (in contrast with The Dark Knight, which felt like three hours of story in about two and a half – in a good way). It is possible Nolan had plans for the Joker in this third installment, plans that had the rug pulled out from under them by the sudden death of Ledger. Either way, there was a definite lack of energy and life to this installment, ending the trilogy on something of a whisper, not a bang.

Additional elements in the film provided perplexing and frequently off-putting moments. The performances in this one were distinctly sub-par in comparison with either of the other two films, and the dialogue was shockingly sub-standard in a vast amount of scenes. The opening to the film was cringe-worthy of the worst cut-and-paste action material Hollywood can provide, and at several other points the dialogue was literally so poor I found myself writhing in my seat. When someone tells Bane, “You’re pure evil!” you know a less-balanced hand than Nolan’s was at work in the film. In fact, alien fingerprints are everywhere to be found trapsing across Nolan’s landscape, to the point where I can’t help but wonder if the studio were more firmly interfering in the film than in the last two, since so much more was riding on it.

But the largest problem with the film (and yes, we’re going to talk about the positives in a moment) was that I understood what it was trying to do thematically and didn’t think it accomplished its aim at all. The last installment is the dark night of the soul, the place where everything is lost and the hero is melted down in the fiery trials of life, where everything is taken away and he must be broken down and built back up into a hero. Everyone was expecting an epic action film filled with Batman beating up on Bane and his minions, but it was clear to me Nolan was taking the story in a direction similar to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay from the Hunger Games, where the weight of the story would be carried by emotional and character gravitas rather than in external battles. That Bruce would be broken down and be remade from the ashes in alchemical form was to be expected. Except that, unlike the slow chrysalis of Batman Begins, the transformation in The Dark Knight Rises takes on a perfunctory feel, a paint-by-numbers and fill-in-the-blank affair where we don’t quite get to the point of feeling Bruce truly despair. We don’t see him completely give up and have to come back from that. His descent and ascent from The Pit were so close together we got no sense of the five month interval of hellish trial. The film really should have dwelt on this issue longer, made it truly horrific, and then have Batman rise from the ashes. Instead, it seems all to easy. The final act of the film was so rife with cliche and familiar plotting structures that it seemed as though Nolan had almost altogether stopped trying. It progressed in rather predictable fashion, to the point that I was predicting the end about fifteen minutes into the film.

Now, to the good. Bane was absolutely marvelous. A great villain, and just as interesting for me as the Joker from The Dark Knight. There was quite a lot of good in the film, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. His personality and what he is trying to accomplish in Gotham, plus the re-enactment of the French Revolution, were very nice touches. Alfred was once again great, and a real highlight. I was on the fence about Anne Hathaway, but she played a good Catwoman. Tom Hardy, as mentioned, was an energizing villain. It was a fine film, but unfortunately, Nolan’s standard is rather higher than that.

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