The Dark Knight Rises needs no introduction. Rather than any plot summary, I’ll just go right into it.
First off, it’s a 165 minute film that doesn’t drag or feel its length. That’s a good thing. Christopher Nolan is the king of the crosscut – editing across space and time to represent events happening concurrently (parallel action) – and he uses this technique ad nauseum in here. I didn’t count, but I’d guess that 60 minutes of the 165 total run time is taken up by crosscutting.
There are some really great things in TDKR. Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is excellent. As is the rest of the lead cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt follows up a flat, uninteresting role in Inception with a character who actually has…well character. Tom Hardy creates another iconic role largely through only eyes, voice and thumbs.
Nolan uses said crosscut to really pull some terrific suspense out. Nearly the entire second act – though almost devoid of Batman (not a bad thing) – and much of the third is cryptic plotting that pays off. There’s a good mix of surprising humor and action and some of the set pieces, including a labyrinthine prison, are stunning to look at.
Then there are some not so good stuff. I like to dwell on minutiae, and I’ll get there shortly. First some of the bigger ones: the score. More precisely, the usage of the score. Hans Zimmer’s music is good in and of itself, but it’s so on-the-nose, always pointing to a plot point before it happens. It calls too much attention to itself, overwhelms much of the action, and pushes some otherwise dark scenes closer to a straight-up adventure tone.
Does Nolan direct his minor actors? So many of them are terrible in here. I’m a fan of his from The Wire and Game of Thrones, but Aidan Gillen is brutally bad in the otherwise fun intro. Ben Mendelsohn, usually reliable, has a laughably bad pleading scene opposite Hardy’s Bane. Plenty of one-line characters – cops, a priest, etc – are also cringe-inducing.
While some of the larger script (under)development didn’t bother me (I don’t really care how Bruce Wayne gets across a desert in record time and back to Gotham. Hasn’t the man probably made some connections in his life? Isn’t he bound to come across some form of life out there. Isn’t he resourceful?) other script points really do:
If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know I’m no fan of V for Vendetta (this is relevant, I promise). Here’s a big reason why (sorry about the aspect ratio):
So you’re telling me that, as all this other craziness is going on, this masked vigilante finds the time to elaborately set up all of these dominoes and then knock them down elegantly? And what’s worse: he does this only for himself. And what’s even worse: the crosscut indicates the level of distress outside. Isn’t this a bit of a waste of time? Don’t give me that “symbol” or “metaphor” garbage either. Symbols can easily be woven into the narrative, not separated out.
Well there just so happens to be a similar scene in TDKR. Batman returns to Gotham. He asks Commissioner Gordon to ignite something on the ground. It’s a trail of fire. Which leads to…a giant gasoline/fire bat on top of the bridge! Okay. It’s cool to look at. And it’s also simultaneously a warning to his enemies and comfort to the civilians. But we’re in a race against time. There’s a bomb about to go off. Isn’t it a little, um, wasteful or short-sighted to put what must have been a decent amount of effort into said gasoline bat?
Anywho, aside from some clunky early editing (it’s nitpicky, but check out the shot of Alfred (Michael Caine) in the elevator just before the re-introduction of the Bat Cave. Feel flat? Feel like a poorly planned pick-up shot?), I’ve got one other comment, which is regarding the politics at play here.
Why is it that no “normal citizen” is shown to go against Bane and company? The people in revolt are the cops, mostly. And then those other characters essential to the narrative. Sure, maybe Nolan wanted to avoid what has now become a cliche – NYC banding together to help Spiderman. But still, isn’t it odd that – whether we take this as a 99% vs. 1% plot or not – no one from the everyday citizenry is shown to disagree with all of this? You’ve got Bane and his cohorts. You’ve got the rich people they put on trial. You’ve got Batman, Gordon, Selina, etc. But where is everyone else? After the football scene do they just go home and wait in fear? Doesn’t anyone pipe up?
So…who is the 99% here? And if you don’t like comparing this to the occupy movement, how about thinking this way: Bane calls for a revolt against the stuffy upper class. But his revolt is shown to be violent and regressive. The cops oppose this force. They’re violence is shown to be only when provoked. In Nolan’s narrative then, the cops are the underdog good guys, Bane and company the bad guys. This isn’t a very liberal leaning film? It’s actually pretty conservative, I’d say.
Weird pairing here. Kandahar is by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who directed at least two brilliant films: Once Upon a Time Cinema (1992) and A Moment of Innocence (1996).
His Kandahar has, like TDKR (maybe this is how they’re connected) it’s ups and downs. Kandahar concerns a young Canadian/Afghani woman Nafas (Nelofer Pazira) who returns to Afghanistan in search of her suicidal sister. The film is her perilous journey to Kandahar.
First the downs: Pazira isn’t always convincing as Nafas. Her delivery in English is frequently flat and, though she’s supposed to be a confident woman, her confidence often comes across simply as uninflected and bland.
Makhmalbaf also incorporates some baffling editing choices, usually surrounding his reaction shots. An example: the doctor (Hassan Tantai – who gives a very strong performance) talks to a woman. She removes her burka. And reveals she’s actually a man. It’s a joke. But when we cut back to the doctor he stares for a full second…and then bursts out laughing. It’s an amateurish cut. Why not just whittle that down a bit more and make the reaction timely?
The strong points are largely surrounding Makhmalbaf’s poetic eye. His shots are frequently wide, deep and color coded:
He’s also clearly interested in the dreamlike where, when contextualized things move from surreal to a painful reality. Here a group of one legged men limp in slow-motion towards camera:
The cut is equally strange: a parachuting pair of legs.
When put together and in the context of the script – the danger of mines, the Red Cross’s inability to assist victims in a timely way – this sequence quickly moves from odd to dramatic.
Much of the remainder of Makhmabaf’s frames reinforce his central theme of the imprisonment and persecution of women. Consider a scene where Nafas first meets the doctor:
Each of these shots is framed to accentuate a different physical barrier. In the first, the young man Khak is in the foreground blocking part of the frame. It’s evident that the back of his head is given as much importance as the front of Nafas’s – they’re both after all “covered.”
The second frame reflects Nafas’s limited point-of-view, and the third isolates her down to only a single body part.
Makhmalbaf continues this theme with the circular, gorgeous, and despondent ending:
We’re able to see Nafas’s face, but even her eyes are covered by the shadow of the veil (prison bars). When we’re treated to her POV, it’s again limited. That it’s a classically beautiful shot, but obscured by the imposing veil, speaks even further to the inability (or refusal) to integrate women with their surroundings.