Sunday, July 20, 2008
In Theaters: The Dark Knight
For a long time, I’ve thought that a Batman movie styled after THE FRENCH CONNECTION and its ilk was a good idea. I’m not entirely sure how I arrived at this premise, but with THE DARK KNIGHT I seem to have gotten my wish. This is a superhero movie which feels unlike any to arise previously, even including its immediate predecessor BATMAN BEGINS. In what is very much at risk of becoming an oversaturated genre, THE DARK KNIGHT is fresh, unpredictable, new. It may be the film of the year, though putting it next to WALL-E and SPEED RACER makes for an apples and anti-apples situation. It’s easily the best of the Batman movies, though, and one of the best superhero movies ever made. I’m hesitant to call it the best, partly because it feels wrong to put something so relentlessly grim at the top of what still strikes me as a basically optimistic genre, but it’s definitely in contention. Time will tell.
The story initially revolves around separate attempts by Batman (Christian Bale again) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to take down the three major crime families plaguing Gotham City. Batman, with a little help from Wayne Enterprises partner and gadget designer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), manages to unofficially extradite from Hong Kong the accountant (Chin Han) who pooled all their money, and Dent triumphantly levys Rico charges against an entire courtroomfull of mobsters. The gangsters, however, have decided to enlist the services of a scarred and deranged hood known as the Joker (Heath Ledger), who promises to kill the Batman in exchange for half of, well, everything. He begins a campaign of terror and murder against the city, saying it will only end if Batman reveals himself and is handed over to him. Bruce Wayne, obviously, is stuck in a dilemma, but this isn’t the only twisted game the Joker is interested in playing; Dent is a target too, and his idealism is quickly tested.
I don’t want to say any more, because one of the really amazing things about this film is that it is unpredictable. With Batman’s origins out of the way and the Joker’s perpetually shrouded in mystery (he tells at least two entirely incompatible accounts of how he got his scars), the film lacks most of the familiar beats of the superhero story, leaving us uncertain about where it’s going to go at any given moment. Early on the picture works like a crime drama, full of scenes of investigation and espionage and good old-fashioned heisting. But as the Joker steps up his war against the civility and perceived order of Gotham, even this unravels. The sheer brutality of the character is unmatched by any previous comic-to-movie supervillain, and the comedic tone serves to emphasize the horror rather than ironically distance us from it. Even his motives aren’t addressed until some ways in, and then only in a way that leaves plenty of ambiguity.
Buzz was circulating about Heath Ledger’s performance as the villain early on, and this was unfortunately amplified by his sudden and senseless death early this year. Some people morbidly speculated on a link between the dark and twisted role he played and his death, though everyone who worked on the film has attested that he wasn’t that strongly affected by his work on set.
It’s easy enough to think that he was truly inhabiting the character, as his performance never slips for a moment; his Joker is the most believably human interpretation of the role I’ve ever seen, even counting his uncountable comic book appearances. All prior versions of the Joker seem to have shared a kind of iconic distance, but this is a truly intimate kind of insanity. Ledger’s Joker comes off as authentically psychopathic, a bundle of nerves and tremors that somehow are kept under just enough control to form a brilliant criminal mind. He’s not the Clown Prince of Crime, he’s a lunatic. Ledger doesn’t leave any hint that he’s acting, which is where the confusion and rumormongering arise, but there’s no doubt in my mind that this is a triumph of skill. If he were still alive- heck, if we didn’t even know who Heath Ledger was- I have a feeling most of us would still be raving, because this is just one of the great performances. It will be looked at for years.
Christian Bale threatens to be acted off the screen entirely, and it’s to his credit that he isn’t. I have some problems with his voice as Batman; he takes on a very affected growl that ironically feels more cartoonish than Kevin Conroy’s work on the Animated Series so many years ago. Still, he has the physicality of the character and particularly the fake smugness of Bruce Wayne down pat, and carries a lot of scenes. Aaron Eckhart is the film’s other standout performance; Harvey Dent’s bright optimism conceals a harder edge that the events of the film threaten to expose, and Eckhart provides the character with authentic emotional depth. As Rachel Dawes, Dent’s girlfriend and Bruce Wayne’s ex, Maggie Gyllenhall is sharp and convincing, an improvement over Katie Holmes’ unspectacular turn. Gary Oldman as Lieutenant James Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Fox, and Michael Caine as Alfred are all in great form, and the film has the feel of an ensemble piece at times.
The action here is a great improvement over that of BATMAN BEGINS; the first time around, Christopher Nolan was limited by the Batsuit’s limited mobility and settled for a lot of quick cuts that weren’t really easy to follow. Here, the suit is actually improved as part of the story, and the action is cleanly blocked and comprehensibly edited while still packing a visceral kick. Despite the relative complexity of the story and the ambiguity of its themes, the Batman still kicks plenty of ass. Shooting so much of the film in Chicago was an inspired choice; not only does Gotham take on some of that city’s unique character (as with New York’s standing in for Metropolis in the SUPERMAN movies), it feels more like a real place as opposed to a comic book world. (The amount of material shot in broad daylight enhances this feel.)
One of the unfortunate things about the times we live in (though low on the scale to be sure) is that any film involving terrorist-like characters, people standing for law and order, and so on, is that we will see parallels to current events and be compelled to work out which political side the film is taking. To be fair, it’s not like the filmmakers shrink from the implications of the story. Batman works out an ethically questionable method of surveillance for the entire city, Alfred tells a story about an undisciplined and unreasonable bandit he had to deal with back when he was a colonial soldier.
At first it seems like the story is playing into right wing talking points: our enemies cannot be negotiated with, we cannot hold back in our fight against them or grant any concessions, the ends justify the means. But that’s only the expectation of how many of these subplots will be resolved; the reality of what unfolds is murkier. Indeed, the Joker is interested specifically in bringing people down to his level, forcing them to make unethical choices, and every time they do he succeeds a little more. The question of how much our ends can justify our means is particularly relevant to current politics, and no doubt the film will be co-opted by many, many people. But the intelligence with which THE DARK KNIGHT handles these questions should keep it relevant long after the world’s situation has hopefully improved.
This is the first comic book superhero film in which I can recall being genuinely scared. It’s one of the few wherein I was uncertain of the fates of certain characters, and it’s possibly the only one where the outcome is a genuine surprise. THE DARK KNIGHT is apparently on track to make huge piles of money AND get great reviews and possibly even win awards, so my recommendation is just another drop in the ocean. But really, this is an amazingly good picture. See it if you like Batman, if you don’t like Batman, if you’re vaguely familiar with the fact that there is a character called Batman. This is superb filmmaking that pushes beyond the limitations of its genre to tell a rich and gripping story, and the fact that I’m not yet sure if it is the best film of the year only says how good the rest of the year has been. THE DARK KNIGHT may well be a masterpiece.
Based on the character created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane
Story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer
Screenplay by Johnathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
Directed by Christopher Nolan