Arts Commentary: A Few Notes on “The Dark Knight Rises”

When I first learned of the shooting in Aurora, I immediately thought, “Wonder how long it’ll take until someone blames the movie.”

By Kyle Clauss

Christian Bale as Batman in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Photo: Ron Phillips © 2012 Warner Bros.

About the controversy

Much like the film that preceded it, the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is adrift in a whirlpool of rabid news coverage and discussions of death. In order to fairly critique The Dark Knight Rises, it must first be separated from the publicity that surrounds it, just as a chef separates an egg yolk from its white.

This was not done upon the release of The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker was, without a doubt, electrifying. However, it is doubtful that Ledger would have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor had he not accidentally overdosed on prescription drugs and died. His death, now four years old and still at least partially shrouded in mystery, endowed the film and his performance with a haunting mystique that no director can ever account for ahead of time. Without it, Ledger’s Joker would have ranked, in the eyes of the haughty Academy, closer to Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder than Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Father Brendan Flynn in Doubt.

When I first learned of the shooting in Aurora, I immediately thought, I wonder how long it’ll take until someone blames the movie. The media certainly wasted no time with their ambiguous postulations of a link between the two. Less than a day after the tragedy, The New Yorker posted a blog entry written by Adam Gopnik, bulwark of America’s panicky zeitgeist. He boldly claimed there is an “inner madness in this country.” These are strong words from the man who occasionally writes the magazine’s hockey column, and poorly.

The arts are too often the scapegoat of the overzealous alarmist. To blame any piece of art for the actions of an irrational madman is simply lazy. In times of extreme grief, blame is a most sought after commodity. When it cannot be found easily, pundits dig deeper and deeper until the unlikeliest of culprits are held responsible: a movie, a book, a song, a video game. Art impels but does not compel.

For example, less levelheaded historians spotlight Mark Chapman’s love of The Catcher in the Rye. It is an easy target. Obviously, one of the most assigned, controversial books of the twentieth century prompted John Lennon’s killer to launch a Caulfieldian crusade against phonies, right? Never mind the fact that Chapman also had a few Beatles cassettes on his person at the time of the slaying, and that he was a heavy drug user with severe psychological problems. It is much easier to cast blame on a book that uses the word “goddamn” 255 times.

One of the most notorious cases of persecution of the arts in this manner was led by, at one time, the two most powerful women in America: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tipper Gore. It was a one-two punch of wholesomeness. Tipper and her Parents Music Resource Center, like St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, sought to rid the music industry of smut with the “Tipper sticker,” designating which albums contained explicit lyrics. Not to be outdone, Hillary launched a campaign against smut in the video game industry.

Tom Hardy’s performance as Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES has not been properly recognized. Photo: Ron Phillips © 2012 Warner Bros.

Gruesome tragedies like the one in Aurora have occurred before Louis Lumiere and his brother put the finishing touches on their “Cinematographe” in 1895. Unfortunately and uncomfortably, chances are good that another shooting in a public place will occur by time the Batman franchise is yet again rebooted and milked for three or four more films (here’s looking at you, Superman). Anyone afraid of entering a movie theater in the wake of this tragedy is not rational. I saw The Dark Knight Rises less than 24 hours after the shooting in Aurora. I attended public school for over a decade after Columbine. I currently attend college despite the shooting at Virginia Tech. Despite something horrendous happening in a part of the country I have not and will most likely never visit, I refuse to alter the way I live my life. After all, one of the strongest themes of Nolan’s Batman trilogy is the refusal to live in fear.

About the film

The Dark Knight Rises lacks the depth that audiences have grown accustomed to in Nolan’s previous films, such as Memento, Inception, or even The Dark Knight. There are plot holes and unnecessary turns that, if patched up or removed, could shave about half an hour off its run time. On my way home from the theater and at the breakfast table the next morning, my mind was filled with “Couldn’t they just have . . . ?” and “Why didn’t they just . . . ?”

There is a distinct difference between a film that suggests a strong, apparent theme and one that relentlessly screams it at the viewer. The Dark Knight Rises is very much in the latter camp. The plot does not advance an inch without a character pontificating about excess, inequality, and the haves and have-nots. Every character of importance in this film come from humble beginnings—Bruce Wayne, Bane, Officer Blake, Miranda Tate, Selina Kyle—and they are all so very eager to say so.

Therefore, it is hard not to view The Dark Knight Rises as a crude attempt to infuse the plot with political timeliness, especially following the Occupy movements of last fall. In fact, the entire film is rife with revolutionary imagery, from vignettes of angry mobs dragging the affluent out of their homes on Gotham’s Madison Avenue to the show trials presided over by actor Cillian Murphy and Bane’s sheepskin coat. Regarding the latter, costume designer Lindy Hemming “took inspiration from a Swedish army jacket and a French Revolution frock coat and amalgamated the two.”

Imagine my surprise upon learning the screenplay was written back in 2009, before any Occupy protest began, before any “human microphone” fired up, before Zuccotti Park and Dewey Square were filled with tents, bongo music, and an odoriferous funk.

Parts of the film bore a striking resemblance to Fight Club, a film similarly packed with trite and belabored socioeconomic statements. Briefly, Ra’s al Ghul appears to Bruce Wayne much like Tyler Durden appears to Edward Norton’s character, and as Bane’s paramilitary followers marched through the streets of Gotham, I half-expected to hear them shout, “His name was Robert Paulson! His name was Robert Paulson!”

Thomas Hardy’s portrayal of the film’s villain Bane has not received proper recognition. Many have complained that Bane’s mask makes his dialogue completely unintelligible, and expectations were exceptionally low given the acclaim Ledger’s Joker received. The role would have handicapped any actor who filled it; without a visible mouth, Hardy must rely on his eyes, body language, and the timbre of his voice to communicate, and he succeeds. As for the clarity of his voice, I caught about 95 percent of his lines—a much higher percentage of understanding than what I could make out of Christian Bale’s Tom-Waits-swallowed-sulfuric-acid rasp. Hardy lent Bane a chilling magnetism that kept the drier, superfluous parts of the film entertaining, the same charismatic zine he provided in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is forgettable at best. She and Bale haven’t much chemistry, and her character is underdeveloped and constantly utilized for either the delivery or set-up of smarmy one-liners that are suited for an Avengers sequel that oozes cheese like, well, movie theater nachos. Likewise, Marion Cotillard was a disappointment. She was wonderfully wicked as Mal in Nolan’s Inception, and she served as a dazzling foil to a cranky Rachel McAdams in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Unfortunately, she too delivers a one-dimensional performance.

The Dark Knight Rises features, for the most part, compelling acting, music, direction, and cinematography; as much as I detest the city of Pittsburgh, I must admit it looks positively stunning as a key component of the stark, winter imagery employed by Nolan in the second and third acts. But just as the inmates of Bane’s prison in “an ancient part of the world” are unable to rise to freedom, these virtues could not crawl out of the massive ditch dug by the film’s subpar plot and dialogue.

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