Joel Schumacher’s campy reign of terror is over. Long live Christopher Nolan, who puts even Tim Burton’s Grand Guignol interpretation to shame. Starting from a very basic but intuitively right conception — let’s make Batman a plausible real-world figure — Nolan and his co-writer David S. Goyer have scraped away the candy-colored barnacles that accrued to the Batman legend over the previous four films, stripping down the story to an elemental battle between a man and his own night terrors.
After several years of development hell and a revolving door of directors, screenwriters, and plotlines attached to the project, Nolan may well be the best current director for the job (though some of us will always wonder what would have come out of Darren Aronofsky’s even darker imagination); with Following, Memento, and Insomnia on his resume, Nolan has an obvious affinity for dark, obsessive protagonists whose splintered psyches drive them outside the normal moral universe. It’s a mindset that’s a perfect fit with the post-Frank Miller conception of Batman as an almost deranged crusader for justice whose single-minded fixation makes him only slighter saner than his enemies. The film’s central theme is the debilitating effect of fear and the way that it can be exploited. Batman and his enemies each seek to capitalize upon the things that terrify us, and Batman must rise above his own childhood fears to claim his place as the savior of Gotham City.
As Bruce Wayne/Batman, Christian Bale makes an odd but interesting choice — he gives a deliberately bad performance, part of the time anyway. In scenes where he’s the dark figure of the night or the billionaire playboy, Bale lets you see that Wayne is assuming roles that he’s not yet comfortable with. Intimidating thugs, he overdoes the scary-creature baritone rasp (he sounds like Alec Baldwin after chain-smoking a carton of Kools and pounding a quart of Jim Beam), and when he’s doing the dissolute-scion-of-wealth number he’s preening and smug, his face a mask that doesn’t quite fit. The Wayne persona has echoes of Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, another man who constructed every part of himself to present a perfect façade; what that says about Wayne the man is only part of what makes this the darkest and most psychologically rich Batman film so far.
Batman Begins exploits the only real lacuna in the character’s history, exploring just what happened during the years between his decision to ritually avenge his parents’ murder nightly and his putting that plan into action. Bits and pieces of the story have been revealed before, and familiar players in the origin story pop up — Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Gary Oldman as James Gordon, and, of course, Michael Caine as Bruce Wayne’s redoubtable butler, Alfred Pennyworth. The characterizations are in some cases altered from the familiar comic-book conceptions, but those have been reinterpreted and updated so many times themselves that the creative license taken here shouldn’t upset even the most obsessive fanboy. What matters is that Nolan and Goyer have conceived of them in ways that make sense both psychologically and plot-wise; they’ve found the resonances in these stock figures that make them live and assembled a cast that adds nuance and insight. To say that Freeman delivers a good performance is too obvious — he’s better than he needs to be in crap like Dreamcatcher, so of course he’s good here — what’s interesting is the impact he has in about 10 minutes of screen time; he makes you feel like you see more and know more of him than you’re shown. Neeson, too, is usually dependable, though even he was felled by George Lucas’ ham-handed dialogue in The Phantom Menace. Here his lines aren’t actually a whole lot better — he symbolizes the danger of confusing justice with fascism and is saddled with some pretty weighty pronouncements — but the character is morally ambiguous enough to provide some complexity for Neeson to dig into. Caine is in some ways the glue that holds the film together; the first Cockney Alfred, he breaks through the usual stodginess of the character and enlivens the film with his dry wit and simple caginess. Best of all, though, is Gary Oldman, who simply becomes Jim Gordon, no questions asked. Those who are familiar with Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One will recognize this as the young(ish) Gordon come right off the comic page — one of very few clean cops in Gotham and an unassuming badass behind a brushy mustache. The only thing wrong with Oldman’s performance is that there isn’t twice as much of it.
As Rachel Dawes, a childhood friend and sometime love interest of Wayne’s invented for the film, Katie Holmes is a mixed bag. Her girlish winsomeness works fine in her scenes with Bale, but it doesn’t make any sense when we see her as a fearless, crusading assistant district attorney; she lacks the hard edges that would make her a plausible lawyer. But as Dr. Jonathon Crane, a psychologist with some crooked friends and dark impulses, 28 Days Later’s Cillian Murphy is a delightful villain, with glittering eyes and a swollen-lipped smile that suggest ineffable glee at being a naughty boy.
Nolan achieves a rare balance between the necessary but minimal exposition scenes and the action sequences; the pace never slackens or loses its rhythm. The action scenes have the whiz-bang stylization and energy of comic book violence, but there are no BIFF!s and POW!s when flesh connects with flesh, just the ugly sound of bones snapping. The editing here is a bit too frenetic — we rarely get a clear look at the punches and kicks connecting with their targets — but overall the film’s visuals are strong. Nolan’s cinematographer, Wally Pfister, who also worked on his last two films, has captured some amazing sights — Himalayan peaks and glaciers, a heavily armored Batmobile (like a Hummer designed by giant insects) racing through the streets of Gotham (actually Chicago), the dismal ghetto of The Narrows (an island off Gotham City patterned after the now-demolished slums of Kowloon) — that give the film an epic feel while paradoxically maintaining its sense of reality. Production designer Nathan Crowley has clearly patterned Gotham partly on the nightmare Los Angeles of Blade Runner, and he’s achieved the earlier film’s sense that this city, though unfamiliar and hyperbolic, could exist, in contrast to the obvious soundstages of the Burton films (has he ever worked on a set that doesn’t look like a set?).
The film’s visuals create a mythopoetic view of Batman’s world. One of the most evocative designs is for the city’s giant elevated train system. Constructed by Wayne’s father after the onset of a local economic depression as a way to connect the various neighborhoods of the city and broaden opportunities to the underclass, we see them in flashback as gleaming ideals of swift transportation. But in the present day, they’re squalid and filthy, graffiti’d beyond recognition, providing shelter and aid to criminals and blocking out the sun, keeping the streets dark and oppressive. The trains serve as a totem of all that the Wayne family has dreamed for the city they love and how those dreams have been perverted by those who would capitalize on the fear of its citizens. At the film’s close, when the El is partly demolished, we know that a new day has come.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Batman Begins / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()