There’s a pattern emerging in Christopher Nolan’s filmography. The degree to which Nolan becomes a better director is matched by his proportional decline as a writer.
Look at Batman Begins. It’s easily his best, most cohesive, most organized, most tonally coherent Batman script. It’s also his worst performance as a director – the action is too often impossible to follow. Even something as simple as prison yard fist fight is edited and blocked to within an inch of its life. Batman Begins also has the dubious honor of featuring the tackiest bit of CG in a Nolan film ever: that horrible, horrible seizure inducing fear toxin bullshit. And the performances are good, but not great. Tom Wilkinson is given too much free reign to ham it up as Falcone while Katie Holmes is a black hole of charisma out of which no good emotion can escape.
Between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, it’s evident from the very first shot that Nolan has matured as a director – that bank heist is almost as ably executed as one of the set pieces from Heat. Yet, the script represents a significant regression for Nolan. The rather messy combination of the Joker and Two-Face relegated the latter’s emotional arc and performance to the sidelines. This would have been fine if Harvey Dent’s arc wasn’t the main narrative arc of the film…but it was. The Joker, easily the most memorable and most scene stealing performance, had no arc. He was a plot device, a foil for Batman and the inciting incident for Harvey Dent’s fall from grace. The script lost sight of this, giving us way too much time with the Joker for any meaningful narrative to emerge from the resulting mess. Though Nolan had improved his action directing chops significantly in the intervening time, his imperfect judgement still showed, particularly in the chaotically cut together Lower Wacker chase sequence and the god awful Batvision crap in the finale.
That brings us to the conclusion, the end to this “trilogy.” The Dark Knight Rises has easily the worst writing Christopher Nolan (and his brother) have ever done.
Yes, even worse than Inception’s exposition fest.
The script’s worst offense is its pretentious, forced attempts at wringing a formal trilogy out of Nolan’s earlier Batman movies. The integration with the League of Shadows plot strand from the first one was an inspired decision. That Harvey Dent bullshit was not. Also totally ineffective were the first act’s introduction of (approximately) a metric fuck load of characters that should have been introduced earlier in the series. The result is a first act jam packed with endless, abstrusely written expository conversations mixed with endless flashbacks and a series of third act conclusions that have half the desired impact. A certain third act twist, in particular, desperately needed more time with the characters involved for any real weight to register.
Some of this are writing 101-level gaffes, violating the only golden rule of screenwriting (show, don’t tell). Some of these represent macro level miscalculations, like pairing the series’ most solemn tone with its most ludicrous plot (Bane! Sewer brawling! Terrorist Occupy Wall Street! Magic hacker virus bullshit!). However, The Dark Knight Rises rises above its horrendous script through Nolan’s absolutely astonishing and confident direction. It’s as if he pulled a boot out of his ass and, pretty much overnight, became a Michael Mann/Martin Scorsese caliber filmmaker. The way shots are effortlessly staged, composed, edited together represents such a massive leap ahead in quality, that The Dark Knight Rises is still effective, entertaining, exciting and engaging in spite of its inert writing.
Of course, Nolan has always demonstrated an amazing amount of discipline as a director. He made Following on a such tiny budget that he could scarcely afford to shoot more than a single take of every shot. Legend has it that the man has never reshot anything in his entire career. Nolan hates ADR, going so far as to do an audio only take when loud IMAX cameras prevent sound from being properly recorded. It’s with The Dark Knight Rises that Nolan’s discipline on set has finally broken through to his visual aesthetic.
I have very few problems with his work as a director in The Dark Knight Rises. The performances, unlike in The Dark Knight, are all complementary, carefully balanced performances. No one really steals the show and the focus in the film, though Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine come close. Instead, there’s a wonderful sense of harmony and chemistry in the way Christian Bale exudes destitution, Tom Hardy chillingly intimidates, Joseph Gordon-Levitt never gives up, etc.
I suppose, if I were to nitpick, I’d say that there’s a faulty shot/edit in the final chase scene that makes the Batpod’s geography relative to everyone else hard to pinpoint. And, also, Hans Zimmer’s overblown, recycled score gets used way too much. The bloom is definitely off that rose. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Zimmer’s relationship with Nolan is parasitic. Zimmer enables Nolan’s patchy writing by allowing him cover up gaping plot holes with bombastic pomp while Nolan enables Zimmer’s increasingly attention-grabbing, increasingly synthesized exploration that yields constantly diminishing returns.
That relationship, in addition to the immense amount of praise and power heaped on Nolan early in his career, have lead to his decline and lack of discipline as a writer. Someone making movies completely unbeholden to the plot (e.g. David Lynch, Terrence Malick) can get away with writing wishy-washy scripts.
Nolan is not this kind of auteur. All of his films are like intricately designed puzzles. His earlier output (Memento, The Prestige) is quite thrilling because of this particular type of construction. His latter day works, however, suffer from this narrative structure because he doesn’t have that kind of control anymore. Either through laziness or arrogance, Nolan’s subsequent movies are all riddled with careless plot holes, half-assed characterization and continuity errors. That’s unacceptable in something like Inception or The Dark Knight Rises where the biggest thrill is supposed to come from the intricate, precise assembly of disparate plot strands.
His films are still good because he’s getting to be a really great director, but, if he wants to keep making good movies, he desperately needs some kind of intervention at this point. Before he becomes another M. Night Shyamalan. He needs to either find a more disciplined, focused writer or he needs to go back into the wilderness and find himself, again. Memento and The Prestige were fantastic, tight screenplays. Inception and The Dark Knight Rises were bloated messes that wouldn’t have gotten anywhere close to being greenlit were if not for Nolan’s name.
Based on evidence from The Dark Knight Rises, maybe Nolan should direct a James Bond movie. He’s got it in him to make an amazing one. Just lock him out of the writing room.