Friday, June 17, 2005

Consider the following elements of insinuated stylization: of the first nine actors listed in the credits of Batman Begins, only one – Katie Holmes – was actually born in the United States. Christian Bale (Wales), Michael Caine (U.K), Liam Neeson (Northern Ireland), Gary Oldman (U.K.), Cillian Murphy (Ireland), Tom Wilkinson (U.K.), Rutger Hauer (Netherlands) & Ken Watanabe (Japan) all are listed above Morgan Freeman’s liltingly soft portrayal of the weapons wizard in the basement.¹ Gotham, that supremely narrative city, is recognizably modeled after Chicago, remodeled perhaps by the same urban planner who did Bladerunner’s Los Angeles. Almost all of the violence occurs in such close-up that one can’t really see it all – it’s transformed into shape, form, speed & sound effect, reminiscent more of certain films of Stan Brakhage than anything else.

Director Christopher Nolan’s limitless sense of style (viz Memento’s narrative in reverse, or the presentation of an almost hallucinatory sleeplessness in Insomnia) carries throughout the casting. Rutger Hauer as the amoral capitalist turns another Bladerunner echo on its head (all he needs is a cloned owl). And Gary Oldman’s good cop, his ordinariness underscored by large glasses, large moustache & clothes at least one size too big, is the antithesis of his beyond-the-top villains, such as the bad narc of The Professional. Finally, there is Liam Neeson reprising his Qui-Gon Jinn role from Star Wars right down to the saber training, this time as unrepentant fascist.

Batman Begins is more noir than thou. One review I saw called it Batman & Freud. And at one point during the Tibetan part of the film – you knew there was Tibetan part of the film, right? – my mind wandered over alternate titles on the order of Bodhisattva Batman or Batman, Jedi. But what this move really is is a Batman for people who hate the Jeff Koons-type caricature into which the Batman franchise has degenerated. This is, in short, a Batman for grownups.

I’ve seen two general types of reviews thus far – those that were thrilled at the idea of an intellectually rich & layered film based on the worst of the comic book-action movie franchises & those who thought the idea of an intellectual film about Batman was ponderous & pretentious. I’m more in the former camp, but not because I think this film explores Bruce Wayne’s tortured character. That, I think, is the cover story, the layer added to justify the deeper film. In this movie, it is style that is the narrative, and the ultimate meaning of Batman Begins.


¹ This works, precisely because it’s so consistent – only Caine & Watenabe are allowed to sound “foreign,” but the American accents are so gently stylized (the best is Wilkinson’s gangsterese) that it’s clearly an element of the film – when Freeman & Holmes speak, their American voices convey not nationality, but directness & sincerity – and here the Latin meaning of that word, without wax, is entirely appropriate. I’ve never heard a film make such careful use of this aspect of the actor’s palette before. It makes me almost anxious to hear Neeson in his forthcoming role as Steven Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln.