Since “The Dark Knight Rises” is the concluding chapter in
director Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy, it’s not particularly startling
to find the movie’s recurring theme is moving on and letting go of the past.
But that’s not an easy task when you’re Bruce Wayne, a man enveloped in a
cocoon of childhood trauma, violence and agonies over lost friends and lovers.
“Rises” begins with an image of an expanse of ice on a river
slowly splintering: Everything changes, Nolan is warning us, and even the
things that seem strong and solid will eventually crack and crumble. An ominous
message, but one that suits the frequently unsettling “Rises,” which brings
Nolan’s story cycle full-circle in a plot that is more notable for its
solemnity than its super-heroics. If you want a playful, colorful “Batman,” go
back to the 1960s TV series or the kooky 1990s Joel Schumacher movies: “The
Dark Knight Rises” is many things, but it is definitely not a funfest.
It is, however, a powerhouse picture and very much in line with Nolan’s sweeping
style, which crams an amazing amount of information into nearly every shot
without feeling fussy or overworked. As with “The Dark Knight,” “The Prestige”
and “Inception,” you can see “The Dark Knight Rises” twice and feel as if you
are seeing two different movies. The first time, you will pay attention to the
twisting storyline; the second, you’ll pick up on all the meticulous details
(and puzzling political undertones) that this world-class craftsman has included.
Set eight years after the demise of the demented Harvey Dent
— the crusading district attorney who became the madman known as Two-Face — “Rises”
reveals a Gotham City that’s eerily in tune with contemporary America. Citizens
lionize a long-gone idol while ignoring the unpleasant facts about his moral
choices (a la Joe Paterno, perhaps?); the aristocracy makes its own rules and
laughs off any possible consequences that could result from breaking them;
disillusioned people with troubled histories dream about reinventing themselves
and making fresh starts, only to find that’s almost impossible.
Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a seldom-seen
recluse whose very mention inspires Howard Hughes jokes; as for Batman, Wayne’s
alter ego, he has been missing in action for years. As Alfred (Michael Caine), Wayne’s
faithful butler, observes, “You hung up the cape and cowl, but you didn’t move
on.” He accuses Wayne of “just waiting for things to go bad again.”
That doesn’t take long. A growing sense of social unrest in
Gotham provides fuel for the fire that is Bane (Tom Hardy), a musclebound megalomaniac
whose face is almost entirely concealed behind a respirator that looks like a
screaming steel jaw. He emerged from a seemingly inescapable subterranean
prison and has continued his ascension with increasingly elaborate crime sprees
(including an attack on the Gotham City Stock Exchange that’s one of the most
disturbing episodes in an often startling film) that have served as warm-ups
for his final, mind-bogglingly ambitious act.
Prior to Nolan’s reinvention of the franchise, Batman
villains were often portrayed as flamboyant folk who dressed in Halloween
costumes and carried on like Mardi Gras merrymakers. Hardy — who scored his
breakthrough role in Nolan’s “Inception” two years ago — turns that idea inside
out by making Bane chillingly calm and business-like. There is no room for
hammy theatrics in his performance; as Heath Ledger did in his Oscar-winning
turn as The Joker in “The Dark Knight,” Hardy fearlessly sinks into the soul of
a consummate terrorist, unearthing the frightening power that comes from
understated evil. His eyes may occasionally betray his madness, but his
demeanor remains eerily level.
“No one cared who I was until I put on the mask,” Bane declares;
perhaps Batman could make the same statement. That’s not the only trait they have
in common, either. Both men speak in peculiar, sonorous voices (Bane sounds a
bit like a semi-suffocated Sean Connery) and carry with them inescapable
reminders of where they have been. Years of clandestine crime fighting have
left Bruce Wayne with a body that’s battered and aching, so much so that he
leans heavily on a cane. Bane’s strangely shaped scars on his back, arms and
shaven head are practically hieroglyphics, laying out every page of his
“Rises” is not short on haunted characters. Selina Kyle
(Anne Hathaway, serenely sexy) is a talented thief — never once identified in
the movie as Catwoman, by the way — who uses her beauty and charm as weapons,
although she seems to have grown to hate the same skills that have kept her
alive. Police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) makes frequent visits
to the orphanage in which he grew up. Even the sophisticated Miranda Tate
(Marion Cotillard), an alternative energy advocate and Wayne’s possible love
interest, has a nasty-looking mark on her back that she won’t discuss. Lucius
Fox (Morgan Freeman) is still the keeper of Batman’s secret arsenal, although
his days in that position may be numbered.
And then there is Alfred, who may finally be ready to walk
away from Wayne Manor. “I’ve sewn you up, I’ve set your bones, but I won’t bury
you,” he tells Bruce, who is contemplating putting on the Batsuit once again. Caine,
who has added a touch of grace and light to Nolan’s previous Batman films,
delivers a jolt of poignancy in this installment, finally and painfully drawing
a line between supportiveness and self-preservation.
It’s the heart of Nolan’s film: that nothing is permanent, even the things we have always taken for granted. Everything changes and — like Nolan, Bale, Caine, Freeman and company, who have now given us three outstanding Batman films — the time eventually comes when we must move on.
Note: The IMAX version of “The Dark Knight Rises” contains 72 minutes of footage — half the movie’s running time — shot specifically for the enormous IMAX screen. The effect is truly eye-popping, worth every penny of extra admission.