Hardy Oldman Double Feature
An angel came down from heaven and give me twenty dollars, so I rolled my bones out to the picture show. My plan was to see the evening screening of The Dark Knight Rises, perpetual Batman mark that I am, but I had plenty of time to kill before it started, and no particular place to go, so I saddled up with the appropriate sugar delivery vectors and wandered in to Lawless at the last minute.
I probably knew, but didn’t remember, that the two movies share cast members — specifically, Tom Hardy (playing a noble but flawed patriarch in the former and a murderous asshole in the latter) and Gary Oldman (playing a murderous asshole in the former and a noble but flawed patriarch in the latter). I definitely didn’t know, or couldn’t remember, that Lawless was adapted from a ‘true’ story , however mistily, by homicide-crooner Nick Cave, whose work as a writer I have studiously tried to avoid. It was pretty obvious he was behind the caper from the first frame, though, because it featured some deep-fried version of Link Wray’s “Fire and Brimstone” and equally purty tunes of low livin’ throughout. Still, a good soundtrack (and it was good, damn it, with Cave getting an assist from henchman Warren Ellis) isn’t enough to get me out of the house.
Lawless tells the story of the Bondurants, a family of bootleggers from Virginia doing business in high-octane moonshine in the dirty Thirties. The plot, in one of its many missteps, largely concentrates on the doings of brother Jack, the most timid of the three siblings, who is considered the weak sister of the outfit because of his unwillingness to kill. Anyone who has ever seen a movie set in the American South, or even paid close attention to the oeuvre of Kenny Rogers, will instantly predict that he will eventually overcome his coward-of-the-county reputation and lay a hurting on someone, but unfortunately, his role is entrusted to Shia LaBeouf, who is as lacking in gravity as the moon. He’s doubly damned in this regard , because his two brothers are played by Hardy (as the rumbling, hulking, deliberate Forrest) and Jason Clarke (as the unpredictable and deadly Howard); as if that weren’t enough, the junior partner in the firm is assayed by a young and relatively unknown actor named Dane DeHaan, who likewise acts rings around The Beefer.
What Lawless gets right, surprisingly, is largely creditable to the work of Cave. Like him or loathe him, the man knows how to get down in the mud, and that’s exactly when the film works best, when it’s rolling in its own glorious blood and filth. Brutal beatings, wild-ass drinking and whoring, castration, hog slaughter, and creepy scenes of religious ecstasy (including one that is, even as we speak, being illegally downloaded for dissemination to foot-fetishists the world over), all stain the Virginia creepers with an appropriate degree of roughness that makes a lot of it well worth watching. Mia Wasikowski, as the local preacher’s daughter, also has some charming scenes as the object of Jack’s affections; their scenes have a sweetness that seems like it comes from a different movie, but meshes surprisingly well with the rest of its bloody doings.
The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, and where Cave fails is by trying to force it to rather than going for a more impressionistic approach. Jessica Chastain does a good job as a big-city dancer who comes to work at the family’s pumping station, but it’s a thankless and somewhat confusing role. Likewise, Gary Oldman is toothy and fine as a gang boss who buys the family wares, but the role is totally unnecessary and could have been left out completely if the filmmakers didn’t need an excuse for him to ham it up. And the central conflict of the film involves a confrontation between the Bondurants and a flamboyantly crazy lawman named Charlie Rakes, played by Guy Pearce in a blatant attempt to win the coveted Snidely Whiplash Memorial Trophy for Excellence in Cartoonish Villainy. It’s never clear why he doesn’t just arrest or gun down the brothers (something is made of their status amongst the locals, but why do they all wait so long to do anything about it?), or, for that matter, why they don’t do the same to him, since he behaves in such a ridiculously illegal manner from the first time he appears on screen to his Virginia-baked send-off. It’s not that Pearce is bad in the role; it’s just that the script practically calls for someone with horns and a tail, and he doesn’t have much choice than to go way, way over the top.
Director John Hillcoat does a decent if unspectacular job behind the camera. Lawless is appropriately crammed with background color, and most of it looks appropriately run-down and depressed; he also does a fine job of staffing his scenes with suitably crag-faced weirdos to represent the locals. But the movie looks more like a very good episode of a TV show rather than a very good movie, and the way it fails to hang together as a whole, instead coming across (especially in the deeply abrupt ending) as something that ought to be broken up by commercials, just plays into the sensation that I watched two good hours of Justified instead of going to the movies. (I should probably throw True Blood in there as well, what with all the British people putting on cod-Southern accents, none of them particularly native to the place where the movie was set.) It’s a movie worth seeing, but I have a feeling it won’t suffer too much from its transition to smaller screens.
Speaking of episodic works, The Dark Knight Rises — the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and his final word on the character — is easily the weakest of the three, which isn’t to say that it’s at all bad. In fact, it works quite surprisingly well if you think of it as the final chapter of what was meant to be an ongoing and complete narrative. Too bad that wasn’t made clear from the very beginning, because the final film wraps up so many loose ends so effectively that it would hugely benefit from being viewed right after a re-watch of the first two; as it is, though, it can seem a bit out-of-the-blue when it’s trying to deliver its total package.
The plot is too complicated to summarize without first wasting a lot of time and then engaging in rampant spoilerism. But the plot isn’t exactly the point here; you’ve probably seen the damn thing already, and anyway, it’s a Batman movie. Or is it? Ol’ Batso doesn’t appear at all for much of TDKR‘s overstuffed running time (though to be fair, Nolan has always had a superior grip on timing and those 165 minutes just blow past). That the movie works despite — or because — of his absence isn’t really a surprise, though; it worked just as well in the first movie. Superhero filmmakers have yet to learn that fairly obvious lesson: the tights and fights should be used sparingly, because there’s only so much that can be done with them, while what’s happening outside the core battle is almost universally more interesting.
Like Lawless, The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t cohere all that well, particularly because it has so much it has to get done. But whatever the weaknesses of Nolan and veteran hero hack David S. Goyer, they know what story beats to hit, and they nail the big ones every time. The story has plenty of surprises, but even the ones you see coming — and, let’s be honest, you could see the telegraph wires most of the time even when Goyer isn’t helpfully pointing at them for you — work on the emotional level the film sets up. In Lawless, the flaws in the story are distracting; in TDKR (which has plenty of them), they’re leapt over with Olympic enthusiasm, so you’re too busy contending with what’s happening onscreen to worry about it until you’re home, trying to make sense of them like a jerk.
Some of the more common critical reactions are dead on: Bruce Wayne’s time in the hole is largely a distraction, and how he ever got back to Gotham will rank right up there with who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep as an unsolved mystery of cinema. Nolan still manages to make a muddle of most of his fight scenes, though I’d say TDKR is the best of the three in that regard. Christian Bale is almost entirely forgettable, while new members of the supporting cast steal the show: Marion Cotillard to a lesser degree, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who can seemingly do anything), and especially Anne Hathaway, who is by far the best Catwoman we’ve ever seen both in terms of acting and character, and who’s easily the most charismatic and interesting figure on screen.
Others are harder to figure out: I’m a bit perplexed at those who felt this installment told a more human story (as far as I could tell, there was still about a hour of CGI Batplane blowing shit up), and while there were moments of genuine emotion and power, such as Alfred’s desperate attempt to keep Bruce from committing suicide, they weren’t resolved in the same way that the plot points were. Most of all, anyone attempting a political reading of The Dark Knight Rises was digging a lot deeper than the movie deserved. I’m hoping that all the nonsensical attempts to read a class-warfare interpretation into it are just embarrassing manifestations of the fact that the movie appeared during the Year of the 99%, because they don’t hold an ounce of water. The film just doesn’t have much depth; it’s a decent treatment of the notion of what it means to be a hero — though it’s surpassed even in that regard by a half-dozen westerns made over a half-century ago — but as a political metaphor on any point of the spectrum, it’s a dud. (Look at it this way: if you wanted to announce the coming of a new rule by the proletariat, why on Earth would you do it at a football stadium?)
I can’t close without addressing the movie’s in-room elephant. Of course, I’d heard rumors of the bizarre vocal characterization Tom Hardy chose to spend the entire film tormenting us with, but I’d only seen people talk about it, attempting endless convoluted analogies to convey its deeply kooky qualities. I’d never actually heard it. And when I did, well, whoo boy. Such things are often overblown, but Christ, that accent! Joe Queenan once wrote that a bad accent isn’t necessarily one that’s inaccurate — and who could say Bane’s accent was inaccurate? I don’t even know what the hell nationality it was supposed to represent! It’s that it’s so completely distracting that it threatens to take over the entire movie and keeps you from paying attention to anything else that’s happening on screen. If any movie accent fulfills that definition, it’s Hardy’s jovial-evil-wizard-from-Mars routine, which took an otherwise interesting character and turned him into a prayer that Lucius Fox would develop some kind of universal mute button.
Most of the best superhero comic book stories are self-contained, efficient little pieces of storytelling that manage to encapsulate the main concepts and appeal of the main character while still delivering a compelling plot and background, with some colorful villains to keep everything moving. At its current levels of bloat, I’m not sure I can call Nolan’s Batman films efficient, even though they move a lot quicker than lesser-made films at half the length. But I’m pretty sure that, watched as a piece, they’re going to reflect the rest of those qualities in a superior manner; and with The Dark Knight Rises being an imperfect but overall successful film, he’s accomplished something that’s until now seemed impossible: making a superhero movie trilogy that doesn’t self-destruct in the final installment. That’s not a miracle, but it’s something.