"Theatricality and deception are powerful agents." This quote from Batman Begins is the heart of Christopher Nolan's filmmaking technique for all three of his Batman films and it's certainly on display in The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR). In fact, there's so much of it, you'll need a second viewing to get a true understanding of just how meticulously crafted this film is.
So this is it, right? The end of what will, for quite some time to come, be the definitive superhero film trilogy. Or is it....?
But that's a discussion for later, right now, the task at hand is to analyze TDKR. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to see the film twice as two screenings of the film were playing back-to-back, so this review is a product of first and second reactions to a film that certainly warrants, no demands, repeat viewings. During the first 30 minutes or so, the movie proceeds at neck-break speed which honestly had me slightly worried that Nolan was going to succumb to the dreaded 'threequel curse' . However, upon a second viewing, I gained a new appreciation for the speed of those early scenes as they were utterly necessary for the phenomenal second half of the film. I suspect that many moviegoers will also feel initial worry and then similar while watching but that might just be the intent, a final display of craftsmanship from Nolan to show that he can teeter on the edge of disaster and then steer his ship all the way back to its intended destination. The opening scenes of the film are not intentionally cryptic like Memento or translucently engineered like Inception, the events are rather straight-forward but are oddly isolated like chunks of ice flowing down a river. Which will make you think the film is suffering from poor editing but its just the opposite, the chunks of ice all come together at the end to form one big glacier. The blistering speed sucks you in to Nolan's Gotham and then slows down to a crawl once we get to the heart of the film. Which is Bruce Wayne trapped in a hellish prison or "Pit" (nice nod to fans here by the Nolans and David Goyer) far from Gothan and his allies. It's here that Nolan finally makes a definitive statement on not what Batman can do or what motivates him but on the psyche of the man himself. While the dark, realistic world of Nolan's Batman doesn't allow for some of the more spectacular aspects of the Batman mythos, Nolan does show in this moment that he unequivocally understands Bruce Wayne. Longtime followers of the character and casual observers alike should both be pleased with Nolan's exposition
The remaining portion of the film is quite possibly some of Nolan's finest work in terms of action and fight scenes. There's a marked improvement from that first fight scene on the Gotham docks in Batman Begins and the colossal showdown between Batman, Bane and their respective allies. Of course Nolan isn't going to simply turn-in a popcorn action flick for his third-act, there's one final twist and the very last moments are without a doubt, the most emotional scenes in the entire franchise. But with respect to what's come before, this film has the unenviable burden of being held to the standard of The Dark Knight, and on that scale, it comes up a tad short.
There are no weak performances in this film. Christian Bale turns in his finest performance as Bruce Wayne and while this is also his best performance as Batman, I also can't help but feel that there's a little something missing in terms of the fighting and his Bat-voice is still sometimes laughably unintelligible. Michael Caine has another fine performance as Sir Alfred and is entirely deserving of a Supporting Actor Oscar Nomination. Morgan Freeman is the same charismatic, scene-stealing Lucius Fox and Gary Oldman has yet another strong performance as Commissioner Gordon which for me, will be the most difficult character to recast in the reboot. As for the newcomers, Tom Hardy is simply a relentless demon, that utterly and convincingly destroys Batman. However, while I get that the voice was meant to be a striking contrast to his physicality and convey the intelligent tactician inside of a brutish body,but it's simply too dissimilar and unbelivable. Marion Cotillard has a phenomenal performance but in atypical fashion, she fades intentionally but also makes her presence felt with equal intention, which is exactly how her character should be played. Anne Hathaway has a fine performance as Selina Kyle but it never really feels like she's Catwoman, just an exceptional thief. The finest performance of the newcomers, for my money, was turned in by Joseph Gordon-Levitt who as fans have guessed is actually Robin, but not the 'one' you suspect. These were all fine performances but there were none even remotely close to Heath Ledger's Joker. Without such an elevating performance, the film just doesn't quite make it into the upper echelon of 21st Century filmography.
The screenings weren't in IMAX, so I saw the film without any of the technological trappings but the cinematography from Wally Pfister was still awe-inspiring. Again, the editing seems a little choppy in early scenes but it all comes together by the end of the film and is actually a strength in a second viewing as you already know the end result. The dialogue in the film was also exceptional and is another aspect that Nolan has improved upon since Batman Begins.
There are no weak points in this film and while Nolan has improved upon certain elements of his previous Batman films, in the end, The Dark Knight Rises falls short of The Dark Knight because there is not an equal antagonist to the Joker. However, it's still a satisfying installment that delivers closure on the best comic book movie trilogy of all-time, while still leaving the door open for a return.