Note: If you’re allergic to SPOILERS, you probably don’t want to read this review before seeing the film. If you’d like to try anyway, or if you’re willing to give it a skim, I’ve tried to keep them to the latter half of the review, and I’ve marked the spot where the spoilers begin in earnest.
Christopher Nolan’s films tend to be ruminations on loss and regret — tender morsels of bleeding humanity wrapped in an increasingly glossy, protective coating of hard-edged technical sophistication. When you get past the estimable Hollywood sparkle, you find simple dramas tightly wound around the center of each film. Leonard Shelby loses his memory and gains the capacity for infinite self-delusion. Bruce Wayne loses his parents and sacrifices his own life for the public good. Robert Angier nurtures a revenge scheme that blossoms into an endlessly cloned act of self-destruction. To be a Nolan protagonist is to perch on a razor’s edge between reason and impulse, between sanity and mania, between reality and dark dreams of aggrandizement and/or immolation of the self. The films are things of beauty, precisely constructed and expertly executed. But you wouldn’t want to live there.
SPOILERS FOR THE DARK KNIGHT ABOUND.
The funniest thing I’ve read all week is conservative author Andrew Klavan’s opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal comparing George W. Bush to Batman. It’s not that I dismiss the points Klavan makes about the movie’s deliberate reflection of war-on-terror politics, or even that I don’t sympathize with his clearly felt exasperation over the general dismalness of left-leaning message movies like In the Valley of Elah and Redacted. (Klavan doesn’t even bother to mention Lions for Lambs, which is probably the worst of last year’s lot.) But when Klavan writes, in all apparent seriousness, that there’s “no question … The Dark Knight … is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war,” it’s clear that he’s got no sense for what’s special about The Dark Knight — no feeling for its overwhelming grimness, no appreciation of the abject post-9/11 civilization it depicts, which is dominated by acts of savage violence and wanton fear and the chaos that spreads city-wide like a contagion when those elements are combined. What’s hilarious is Klavan’s effort to identify the most despairing summer blockbuster in memory — it could be the bleakest big-budget adventure since Blade Runner tanked on release near the dawn of the Reagan era — as a ringing endorsement of the current Washington establishment.
Spoilers below for Batman Begins and The Prestige.
For some reason, seeing Batman Begins after a couple of go-rounds with The Prestige — which actually works as a sort of companion piece — made a huge difference in how I read it. For one thing, the complexity and intensity of the characters in The Prestige, and that film’s signature idea of recursive psychological torture and physical self-sacrifice, worked as a new angle for my approach to the earlier movie. The Prestige reaches its climax only after magician Robert Angier’s quest for vengeance — which would come, for him, in the guise of a perfect illusion — culminates in the creation of a potentially endless series of doubles, each of which is drowned, night upon night, in a chilling act of self-flagellation. Once the first, magical, bifurcation occurs, it becomes impossible to say in a meaningful or definitive way which version of Angier is real, and which one is the copy — if, after the first duplicate has been made, that distinction has any meaning at all. Angier reaches the terminus of his journey, and finally works some real magic. But only at heinous cost.
Christopher Nolan helped refine the gimmick thriller with Memento, in which Guy Pearce starred as a man with short-term memory loss trying to find his wife’s killer in a story that unfolded entirely in reverse. That film was all about disconnects between perception and reality, mind and the material world. Nolan has made a couple of more conventional genre pictures since then (Insomnia and Batman Begins), but his engrossing, fascinating The Prestige marks a decisive return to form. It’s a film about two magicians, once part of the same act, holding a mutual grudge. Each goes to extraordinary lengths trying to disrupt the other’s career in a story that is, itself, full of illusion and misdirection. The result, revamped substantially for the screen from a novel by Christopher Priest, goes deep, using its source material as an excuse to ruminate on identity and obsession in a turn-of-the-century milieu that’s cocked slightly to one side of actual history. The despair Nolan finds at the heart of his story is positively existential, but the film is still a lot of fun. It’s that rare thing in multiplex movies, an entertaining star vehicle with lots of flash and style—and a philosophy.