Sound and Fury: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – cinema review
Nolan turns up the volume on the Batman movie. Yes, the faults are amplified, but the triumphs echo all the sweeter.
The Dark Knight Rises
(Christopher Nolan, 2012)
Around the halfway mark of The Dark Knight Rises, there’s an old-fashioned fade to black; in times gone by, the signal for an intermission in one of Hollywood’s bum-achingly long roadshow extravaganzas. And, of course, an extravaganza is exactly what all 165 minutes of Christopher Nolan’s film represents. Only the details have changed. Then, it was musicals or Westerns. Now, it’s a superhero. Then, it was VistaVision and Technicolor. Today, it’s IMAX spectacle and immersive surround-sound.
Especially the latter: the overriding sensation in The Dark Knight Rises is of how loud it is. Between the pummelling bass of detonations and the bombardment of Hans Zimmer’s brass section, this is a film that refuses to let go of your eardrums until you give in. That fade to black I just mentioned? It’s simply a chance for Nolan to twist the dial and go ‘one louder’ with the volume. There is no intermission; there is no escape.
The scale of sound and vision are the perfect accompaniment to Nolan’s sprawling, operatic story of crime and punishment, if arguably a little too heavy-handed at times. Here’s a director with absolutely nothing to prove, but who still can’t resist an excuse to be demonstrative. Even with the world at his feet, Christopher Nolan (like Batman’s foe, Bane) feels the need to apply extra pressure to the audience’s windpipe.
So, in a narrative inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities, Nolan imagines a modern-day revolution in which Gotham City’s festering discontent with the wealthy elite is brought into sharp relief by the arrival of Bane, intent on unearthing a social rift between haves and have nots. It’s an eloquent metaphor and perfect material for Batman, since billionaire Bruce Wayne, despite his cosplay hobbies, is still very much a product of the system and a defender of the status quo. Last time, he fought anarchy in the shape of The Joker; here, Bane’s plan could be ripped from the headlines of, say, Greece in a few months’ time.
Except: Nolan can’t leave things as a metaphor. He’s still doing that thing he started in The Dark Knight, where characters start explaining the themes like they’re reading out loud from the movie’s York Notes. The action literally stops at one point while police debate the merits of stopping Bane hold up a stock exchange, because he’s only really robbing the rich. Similarly, Nolan’s take on Catwoman – a cat burglar who rationalises her thieving in terms of class warfare – comes with mask, catsuit and big neon sign saying, THEMATIC SYMBOL. As for Bruce Wayne, there must come a point where he has to put aside his wealth, his gadgets, and his gym membership and make a literal LEAP OF FAITH to get the one-up on Bane.
And yet, perversely, it’s the sheer size of the thing that keeps The Dark Knight Rises afloat; there’s enough ballast to stop it sinking. However ridiculous Catwoman is, Anne Hathaway brings much-needed levity to offset the harrowing scenes elsewhere. The prissy character of Blake, whose role as mask-hating moral compass Blake comes with its very own rod-up-its-arse, comes alive in the hands of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose musicality of movement continues the paso doble with Wally Pfister’s camera they started in Inception. And Tom Hardy is frankly awesome: a microcosm of the entire film with his full-bodied, intimidating physique and sonic cannon of a voice. Gone is the inaudible mumbling of preview footage; now he sounds like Bagpuss’ Professor Yaffle with a 20-a-day habit and a megaphone, bellowing Bane’s philosophy one soundbite at a time.
And Nolan’s technique is now in a world of its own. By rights, this film should be hideously bloated, but what’s really pleasing is how clipped and concise the editing is. Nolan doesn’t muck around; scenes crash into each other, scarcely pausing for breath. I counted precisely one shot of Batman standing on top of a skyscraper: the bane of previous Batflicks. The reason the film is so long is because the story is genuinely epic, in keeping with the Dickensian sweep of its source. Arguably, it could lose Catwoman, or Blake, and be a leaner affair, but their presence at least helps to convey that sense of bigger things going on beyond the customary solipsism of the hero’s catharsis.
Visually, Nolan is still pilfering from Bond after Inception’s snowscape set-piece. The opening sequence’s similarity to a sequence in Licence To Kill has been noted by many, but what of Bruce Wayne’s transformation from crippled recluse to revitalised playboy? Out comes the razor, off comes the beard, and we’re watching a (better) remake of Die Another Day. Yet the bigger influence is that of Fritz Lang, the only director of crime dramas ever to get quite this dark and still except the audience to show up. Lang’s influence is there in Batman himself, a hate figure for both cops and criminals like Peter Lorre in M; in the Metropolis-derived interest in how a city is built as much downwards as upwards; and in the sheer pessimism of the film’s central sequence, with its Lang-esque vision that we’re only a push and a shove away from disaster.
I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, but frankly, who needs ’em? To be honest, the biggest twists have been given away by fan-lore and Internet speculation. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t so much surprising as remorseless, pushing the superhero genre to breaking point in order to rebuild it. You can probably guess that the third act defaults to a city-wide dust-up but – unlike The Avengers – there’s no floaty CGI nonsense, just incredibly crisp fights and crashes that remain true to Nolan’s trilogy-wide ethos.
The director leaves the superhero genre in much ruder health than he found it, chiefly because he’s not succumbed to modern fads like ersatz animation or distracting 3D. Instead, he’s found his inspiration in those old-school roadshow movies that relied on making an event out of going to the cinema. In that regard, The Dark Knight Rises is a storming success. Just don’t make your next film so loud, Chris.