On Saturday I went to see The Dark Knight Rises in theaters again. Back in 2008, I saw The Dark Knight half a dozen times, so it was a requisite for me to see Christopher Nolan's third Batman opus at least twice, so I finally accomplished that.
While I loved Rises the first time, it wasn't the same kind of love that I'd had for its predecessor. It's not the same kind of film. In many ways, Rises has more in common with Batman Begins, the same basic structure, the same basic plot, the same basic villain. No, it's not the same movie. I've struggled with my appreciation for Begins since its 2005 release. I always thought Nolan could have done more with it. I loved that one, too, but not in the way I've grown to love its sequels. At the time, Nolan was still the director of Memento for me. I loved Memento, in a one-of-my-favorite-movies kind of way. (He has since also directed The Prestige and Inception, as well as the earlier Insomnia and Following.)
What Rises does better than Begins is create a complete and satisfying arc. In Begins, everything is authentic to Nolan's vision except for a somewhat copout ending, in which Ra's al Ghul has done everything perfectly except survive his own plans. He just sort of gets everything he wants and then dies, leaving Batman to be a nominal winner in their little war. Dark Knight figured out that a complete story was absolutely necessary, not just having all the right elements work phenomenally. Rises knows exactly what it needs to accomplish, and to telegraph that, Nolan explains everything that's going to happen right from the start, and he uses as always Alfred to do it. Alfred has always been one of the key elements of any Batman film. He was the best element of Batman & Robin, the truly redeeming one, where it mattered that Michael Gough had stuck around since the Tim Burton films. Michael Caine does the same thing. He has a diminished role in Rises, but it can be argued that his impact is expanded in his absence. What Nolan learned in Inception is that the story explains itself. He's been trying to work on that since Memento. I think he finally reaches his apex in Rises. The best creators know that the best story is cyclical. The end matches the beginning. That's what Nolan does in his final Batman film, on a number of levels, both in mirroring his first effort, and the structure of the last.
Lawless, like Rises, features Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman. For me, it's the conclusion of a Southern trilogy that features O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain. O Brother was a Coen Brothers comedy that spoofed The Odyssey and gave George Clooney one of his first truly iconic performances. Cold Mountain was one of the most unusual Civil War stories ever put to screen. Lawless is about Prohibition, but like The Proposition (another movie penned by Nick Cave) is really a Western. Hardy is one of three brothers trying to make a living. The only problem is surviving. His character becomes something of a legend by being able to survive, actually. (Besides Hardy the other big acting draw of this movie is Jessica Chastain, who has in very short order become one of my favorites.) There are gangsters in this movie (that's where Oldman comes in), but this is a Western, as I've said. The arc of a Southern narrative from its past to the modern age can be traced throughout O Brother, Cold Mountain, and Lawless. Chronologically, the order would be a little different, but the release order (as I've sketched) helps establish a fine narrative. O Brother is the South's impression of itself. Cold Mountain is what the South struggled to overcome. Lawless is the struggle to enter the present. Makes sense to me, anyway.
Post Script: Lawless is based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of the youngest brother in the story. I came across it at a bookstore today. I figured it was a sign that I ought to have the book, having enjoyed the movie so much.