Batman Begins
Reviewed in July 2005
Director: Christopher Nolan. Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Linus Roache, Rutger Hauer, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Boone Junior, Ken Watanabe, Gus Lewis, Sara Stewart, Richard Brake, Rade Serbedzija. Screenplay: Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer (based on a story by David S. Goyer and characters created by Bob Kane).

Photo © 2005 Warner Bros. Pictures
Where to begin with Batman Begins? For almost anything you could say about the movie, the opposite feels equally true. The film is squarely centered on a protagonist and yet uncommonly, even uncomfortably crowded with characters. The production design is lavish but weirdly forgettable. The plot is both simple and convoluted. The ideas are ambitious yet, ultimately, rather pandering. The whole thing builds toward a climax that almost instantaneously feels like an anticlimax. You never know quite where to look, and yet you can't look away. Batman Begins, but it begins halfway through, kind of. Batman Begins, and it doesn't quite end. Batman Begins, but where does it leave us, ever, even from moment to moment?

The best thing about Batman Begins is also its most nagging liability, which is the film's absolute commitment to the addled past and continued unwellness of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). When we meet Bruce, he is an inmate in an East Asian penal colony, which a later bit of dialogue places in Manchuria. Since the screenplay by director Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer quickly adopts a habit of flashing both forward and backward, this seemingly arbitrary beginning must be deliberate. To wit, Bruce is culturally exiled as well as literally imprisoned, both conditions which limn the internal self-divorcements that soon become the hallmarks of the character. But before we rush off to the meat of the story, it is key to emphasize how unrushed Nolan and Goyer are to carry us there. We spend a lot of time in China, wondering how and why Bruce wound up in a prison, surmising whether this prologue is crucial to future events or is merely establishing a tone, and debating the intentions of the League of Shadows, a House of Flying Daggers-type cadre of lithe, silent vigilantes into whose company Bruce is recruited by an imposing and enigmatic European called Ducard (Liam Neeson). The rhythms of the film are immediately unsettling: about 10 minutes in, Bruce makes a snowy haj to the mountain's summit, in a kind of sequence that usually falls closer to the middle of a film than the beginning. Even visually, the emphases aren't where you expect. For all the conceptual weight being placed on Bruce's training as a fighter, Nolan hardly dawdles on the calisthenics, quite mindless of that Bale physique that has hypnotized so many other directors. Those brisk cuts you've seen in the trailers of his sweaty, high-flying aerobic skirmish is all there is in the movie, and most scenes of person-to-person combat are edited into even tinier shards, frankly to the point of viewer bewilderment. By contrast, the unexpectedly fiery conclusion to all this prologue feels protracted and almost indulged, which means we leave this long sequence just as preoccupied by Bruce's capacity for destruction as by his newly-minted wisdom and finesse.

For all of these reasons, Batman Begins both establishes and undermines viewer confidence from a very early point. Scrambling chronologies and masking his characters, cutting away from signal events in favor of clichés and enigmas, Nolan has his audience asking, "Whaaaa?" for far longer than your usual summer blockbuster allows. This is less of a plus than you might think. The film torques the customary recipes without fully radiating the sense that it knows where it's going and what it's up to. And yet, Nolan, cinematographer Wally Pfister, and editor Lee Smith (a Peter Weir vet) offer plenty of local, scene-level thrills as compensation. We may soon tire of Liam Neeson's growing portfolio of shadowy sages, but he excels in a hairpin turn of a scene that has Ducard kicking and screaming at his newly arrived acolyte; Yoda or Morpheus he isn't. An ensuing duel on the ice between Bruce and Ducard makes excellent use of angles and location. An even bigger kick is Bruce's initiation into the League of Shadows, where he squares off with one masked assassin amidst a horde of identically dressed comrades, making of their bodies a shifting, concealing maze. The energy and push of this sequence recall the logjam chase in Insomnia, Nolan's underappreciated entrée into studio filmmaking, and probably his best movie.

After 20 minutes, the narrative could still go almost anywhere, and the style and focus of the film are equally up for grabs. All of this is both exciting and disconcerting. What actually follows is a gregarious, unsettled, powerfully Oedipal, fundamentally confused tale that plays like a parable, even if it never quite commits to what, if anything, it is a parable of. The movie hustles to establish the grandiose wealth of the Wayne clan, but if you're paying attention, the philanthropy of Wayne père is troublingly, even delusionally narcissistic: he meant to soothe the disenfranchised by building a monorail that glides right over them, leading toward a skyscraper emblazoned with his own name? Thomas Wayne is a hero to the poor in the same way Oprah is a champion of literacy: he throws his own stamp down on everything he pretends to be doing for others, and the largest benefits seem to accrue to himself. His death, for all of the Blade Runner pizzazz of the surrounding visuals, is a direct lift out of Ghost, of all things. His dying words are either a consolation or an acid indictment of a very young Bruce's guilt at believing he caused his father's murder.

Daddy's death and, less obviously, his highly ambiguous fare-thee-well control Bruce's life, as well as the movie. A slightly older Bruce, booted from Princeton and still nursing his oldest fears and angers, variously becomes a would-be assassin, an insulated heir, and a globetrotting petty-thief before we catch up to where the movie started us, in Manchuria. What Nolan and Goyer seem to be doing is explicating the tortuous logic and the spiraling psychological backstory of what we've already seen, which is a strange decision after the deliberate ellipticism of the opening. You can't help wondering, or at least I couldn't, whether there isn't something to be said for a more linear, straightforward exposition, one that didn't have to double-back on itself and shade between its own lines quite so compulsively. And what does all this exposition prove? That Bruce is a headcase of penitence, vengeance, grief, and immaturity, lashed to his memories of a father whom he remembers as a saint, and whom the film recurrently treats that way, too, even as the dead man's naïveté and faux-liberal unreliability ring clearer and clearer with each scene. Folks who like their summer movies with a little meat on their bones will savor these lingering ironies and uncertainties, but even as the film introduces them, there is precious little to anchor all the speculation. Given the film's adamant impulses to fix the Bruce Wayne legacy as something more than an excuse for grandiose art direction and camped-up villainy, the constant grasping at narrative and psychological straws—which may well be the truest way to frame the character—also feels like a compromise solution or a weirdly flailing enterprise. To this extent, the ur-image from Bruce's own childhood is also an apt emblem for the film itself. Bruce, having fallen into the bottom of a well, draws transfixedly closer to a pitch-black hole in the rock wall of the well, fascinated by what lies inside and yet unprepared for the furious flurry of bats that pour forth. In the same way, Batman Begins seems positively enthralled by all of the repressions, projections, and holy missions that the previous Batman pictures left unexplored in the dapper but withdrawn figure of Bruce Wayne, and yet the force and contradictions of what it finds in all of that inky potential is massive, frightening, uncontrollable.

The film reels as a result. Utterly unlike Following, Memento, or Insomnia, all of them tightly contained dramas among minuscule ensembles, Batman Begins aggregates subplots, locations, and characters until it almost can't bear them all. Narrative, previously Nolan's signal pre-occupation, is almost out the window, but hardly for lack of trying. The film chugs forward through a prodigal return, a corporate scheme, a WMD on the loose, a gangland melodrama, a rigged court, a legal crusade, a wan romance, a secret psychiatric experiment, a dissipated scion, an ominous overlord, an old nemesis, weapons prototypes, underground spelunks, class allegories, vague political overtones, and big plashes of the supernatural. A whole lot of everything that feels surprisingly like nothing, at least in story terms. You can make it far into Batman Begins and neither know nor care quite what is going on, which is not the same as not caring about the film. At all moments, the figure of Bruce/Batman commands more attention than the intensely convoluted circumstances into which he has entered, and even more commanding than Bruce is Christian Bale, and even more commanding than he is the full set of actors that includes him: Neeson, Tom Wilkinson, Gary Oldman, Linus Roache, Rutger Hauer, Cillian Murphy. The film swims with chiseled, implosive Brits and Europeans playing American, all of them cut from the same bolt of emphatically white cloth, giving rise to the eerie notion that Batman Begins is full of dopplegangers of the same character. Bale and Roache don't seem like father and son so much as they seem like clones, and even Katie Holmes, dark and brunette, and almost as pretty as Bale, seems like a newer, shallower product line from the same factory. (Holmes as an assistant district attorney?) Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, meanwhile, are craggy and avuncular counterpoints to this spooky interchange of oddly duplicative faces and affects, and the film really pushes their positions as witty outsiders.

Eventually, the most imposing in the large cast of villains take center stage, but not only is their plan for global domination rather wildly over-conceived, the very plunge into narrative crises seems like an incongruous direction for what is essentially a character study of an especially warped subject. Bruce's affinities with his antagonists—he looks rather like them, sounds rather like them, decides to "save" the city by sculpting and re-making himself into a literally fly-by-night vigilante assassin—are immeasurably more interesting than the climactic duels between the simplified sides of right and wrong. The film's most striking visual effects, which have to do with a dastardly hallucinogen and an Abu Ghraib-style burlap hood, are fettered to some of the clunkiest plotting. Worse, in needless pursuit of moral and tonal balance, Nolan tries to ballast his gaggle of wrong-doers and unreliables with forced one-liners, Holmes' low-fi romantic allure, and a child recruited from some rainy balcony in Gotham City into the ranks of the Holy Innocents. You've hardly processed the film's best and most startling image, of a murderous and fire-breathing Batman wreaking havoc in the night sky, before the film is hastily cutting away to some pedestrian shot of Holmes comforting a child, some equally pedestrian shot of villains ha-ha-ha'ing in their ghoulish complacency. When the film's over, this is the kind of thing you're still doing: returning in your mind to the movie's most haunting fragments, and mentally dispensing with a lot of the clutter and commercializing impulses that repeatedly get in their way.

Batman Begins ends with the kind of brazenly direct portal into sequel territory that you tend not to see anymore, even as sequels become more and more of a market mainstay. (Barbershop 2? Transporter 2?) Nolan and his talented crew have powerfully reimagined the Batman mythos, but they haven't convinced me that they've really mastered the nature of their own investment in the story. Not since the latter passages of A.I. Artificial Intelligence can I remember a summer movie that seemed like a host of brilliant ideas floating around in a way that kept subtracting from their power—or else, more specifically, in a way that kept suggesting that the mounting incoherence was somehow the point, but without sufficiently quelling our suspicions that imprecision and indecision are trying to countenance themselves as something deeper. So the prospect of a sequel, like everything else in the film, is both encouraging and a little troubling: is Batman Begins ready to take off, or does Nolan already recognize he'll need another film to stabilize the competing dimensions and warring vectors of this picture? Are Bruce and Commissioner Gordon at the start of a beautiful friendship, or will the thinly veiled savagery of Batman's particular social crusade eventually drive him away from the dispirited idealist that Oldman inhabits so beautifully? What's to come of this new phase in the Batman franchise will be a great question to mull over, once I'm done sorting out what the bejesus has already happened in it, and perhaps once the filmmakers themselves have had more opportunity to do the same. B–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Cinematography: Wally Pfister

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