The Dark Knight
Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: July 18, 2008
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine
By Sean Chavel
My enthusiasm is so manifest that it’s difficult to stop myself from gushing praise. Without shame I will lower my guard and speak from the gut. There are so many great things about "The Dark Knight" that I don’t know where to start first. To call it the best Batman movie ever seems like minor flattery in relation to what else I want to say about it. All Batman fans must go see this, and see this as soon as possible. For those few out there who are not interested in Batman and think they prefer reading reviews about it rather than go out to see it, I say act the contrary: You must go! You’ll be surprised by its ambitions within no time and flat-out astonished by the end. Summer blockbusters rarely aim to break the formula barriers. This one does and goes far beyond the call of what’s expected. I think the bar has just been raised.
Christian Bale confirms again why he is a great actor both in a physical sense and as a inner vexed soul – his prominent identity is confused. We know by day he is Bruce Wayne and at night as Batman, but really his two guises co-exists. Sometimes against his preference, he has to hang up the suit. There are times when he’s Batman without the cowl mask and suit. Early on, Gotham City is plagued by copycat Batmans – bad guys in bat suits. It sounds like a premise belonging in the campy 1960’s Batman TV series, but the way it’s staged it’s not silly. "The Dark Knight" recedes from excess crime fighting to allow white knight Harvey Dent, the city’s maverick District Attorney, to overtake the spotlight. Dent is more successfully cleaning the streets from the cartels and the white collar crooks from the bench.
The theme that develops is the compromise of duty in a given outfit. Sometimes Batman even learns you have to take a backseat and let politics play its chips. To successfully achieve goals sometimes you have to look bad in face of public relations. You have to be a disliked Bruce Wayne to be a better Batman. Sometimes you have to be uncompromisingly brutal: there’s a scene where Batman has to beat up a band of cops who are about to mistake hostages for criminals.
Batman makes friends out of enemies and enemies out of friends, and sometimes love and hate is on even par (consider how eked he is by Harvey Dent dating one of his ex-flames). New relationships in this sequel are as equally precedent as old relationships from the last film. Several key characters return from the first film. Morgan Freeman is Lucius Fox, newly appointed in running Bruce Wayne’s corporation. Gary Oldman is the dependable and uncorrupted Lieutenant Gordon. Michael Caine is the mentor and butler to Bruce Wayne. Rachel Dawes is now played by Maggie Gyllenhall (gratefully replacing Katie Holmes from the first film). Each one of them are fuller characters this time becoming essentially component to the story, with the exception being Caine whose British wit is as least appreciated here. The important acknowledgement here is that Batman is surrounded by a strong pedigree.
Filmmaker Christopher Nolan is the brains behind the revamp of the Batman franchise. Nolan’s first film “Memento” was a miraculous debut, the most dazzling and twisted entry into the film noir genre this decade – I’ve wondered for years when he was going to build upon his early promise. He subsequently made the Al Pacino cop picture “Insomnia” and the Christian Bale-Hugh Jackman rival magician picture “The Prestige” which were both accomplished but belonged on a minor scale – you can remember those movies fondly without feeling them in your nerves. When he made “Batman Begins” in-between those two, it seemed like a smart career move to get recognized within the Hollywood brand product industry and it was an admirable effort to reinstall integrity into a flagging comic book character. Nolan did it by taking Batman seriously and the saga seriously. I found “Batman Begins” to be entertaining and psychologically multifaceted but also unwieldy with too many messy plot developments and undisciplined detours that failed to intersect plausibly.
That’s to say I would have never guessed that I would have loved “"The Dark Knight"” as much as I did. Upon reflection all of Nolan’s previous efforts were good pictures, abetted with angry and troubled characters, nonetheless “"The Dark Knight"” is Nolan’s first picture since “Memento” which dazzles the eyes and boggles the mind with its complexity. That’s not something I usually say about comic book movies even with something as good as “Iron Man.” But it’s that kind of movie that insinuates into your imagination so deeply that it hot wires into your nerves. The Joker nemesis is such a disturbing creation that you’re frazzled after the end, it’s not too often a villain has so successfully terrorized the screen that you don’t doubt his ability to have done what he’s done. Most of the time I think only in the movies do villains have boundless energy to hatch their evil plans. This time I believed this Joker (Heath Ledger) has the relentless vitality and beserk rage to wreak evil all the time and everywhere. He’s ubiquitous evil, and believably so.
The fact that Heath Ledger died shortly following shooting of the film is indeed sad, all the more when observing that this is his career highlight and he wasn’t around to see the enthusiastic reaction by fans to see his work. They say the great actors bury themselves into their characters. Sounds almost cliché, but you’d barely recognize Ledger inside the Joker unless you knew his name beforehand on the marquee. It helps that his Joker has caked clown make-up on his face and grungy hair, but Ledger’s disappearance into character is deeper than that. It’s an inner transformation.
Villains this unremittingly scary are few and far between – Javier Bardem justly won an Oscar a few months ago for “No Country for Old Men,” Ledger’s Joker isn’t quite on par with Bardem but he’s worthy of belonging in the same company. There’s an ambiguous sickness in the Joker (he’s mad about his memories of his father cutting his cheeks open), and that childhood scarring has spurred an infinite vendetta against mankind. All those citizens good can become evil in the correct circumstance. In the climax, he pits one boat-full of innocent people against another boat-full of people and forces them to choose who will live or die. As for his adversary Batman, his constant goal is to make Caped Crusader compromise on his ideals. As Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) says, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to become a villain.” If it’s possible to interpret the confounding psychosis within The Joker at all, it is perhaps that he sees the grays between heroism and evil, and so he wants to exploit the precarious dichotomy in other people. His only purpose is menace, to strike fear in individual as well as beat down the construct of an entire city.
The Joker was last made famous by Jack Nicholson’s 1989 performance. Ledger eclipses memories of Nicholson easily. Most Hollywood actors chew up the scenery when they play villains with self-deprecating humor; it’s the performer telling you what a dandy old bad time he’s having. Ledger’s Joker is a psycho on all cylinders. No bad one-liners, no trace of performer frivolity. Even during a party crashing scene, The Joker conducts with mean business whose verbal threats are less comical than paralyzing. This Joker’s jokes are sick (“I prefer a knife to savor the moment.”), and his verbal torment apprehends his victims who must be thinking What is he going to say next? Hope he doesn’t say that next variety. Then there’s a scene where the Joker throws a broken pool stick and urges three captive opponents on the ground are to now compete for their lives – you wonder why Nolan cuts away from the scene but the scenario is insidious enough in itself that the gruesomeness becomes fully imagined in our heads.
Joker is a wild card but the rest of the movie is just as spontaneous and unpredictable. Batman fans know that Harvey Dent will eventually become Two-Face, but that doesn’t even play out in the way you expect it to. "The Dark Knight" has a complex and intertwining narrative, with a plot that’s always ahead of the audience and not the other way around. Maybe it’s because there’s three or more plots at a time – perfectly paced and synchronized – and the fact that there’s always more than three dilemmas at a time keeps things constantly exciting. Nolan’s speedy and relentless pacing is ever-present – it’s filled with visually astonishing action sequences Nolan films it with such casual finesse we’re not aware we’re watching filmed stunt work – we’re captivated by the film’s throbbing forward motion. Nolan never allows the film to dawdle or lag. It’s all operatic action, drama and music synthesis.
It helps that the action scenes are always integral to the story, no action scene ever feels slapped on. The bank robbery that opens the picture, in addition to being superbly filmed, is sensational because it makes logistical sense from a processed villainy point of view. Everything else feels intuitively in motion to the story. Nolan films the most spectacular elements with casual finesse: One, there’s a hijack in Hong Kong sequence (we’re amazed by the script’s audacity to take us outside Gotham City) that unfolds in such a cavalier manner that the scene doesn’t need to scream to the audience, Wow Look at Me! Second, an explosion is photographed with Joker in center frame walking towards the camera – like a key moment in “No Country for Old Men” the film refuses to photograph pyrotechnics in a predictable manner. “"The Dark Knight"” dazzles confidently without overselling itself.
The movie continues to unleash surprises. One of the highlights of the movie is a tunneled car chase that culminates in "The Dark Knight" abandoning his Batmobile in favor of a Batcycle. And the movie has one cool gadget exploited to great use in the climax: Bat-goggles that operates like a homing radar device. Cool stuff is certainly on display in “"The Dark Knight"” but the film succeeds, as aforementioned, on story before anything else. When was the last time you saw a movie that got your adrenaline drumming so intensely on the prospect of cheering on a hero racing against time? With such major stakes involved if he arrives too late?
All this makes it not only worthy of multiple viewings but gives headway that a superhero movie is actually capable of being more dramatically dynamic and seismic in tragic catastrophe than the ordinary “prestige” drama. This is a tremendous leap forward in summer blockbuster entertainment – Batman takes qualitative precedence over all others of its kind, it is the grandest entertainment in 2008.