The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

**this really isn’t a “review” per se, but more like a deep, detailed analysis of everything I thought was relevant on the surface as well as beneath.  All the typical review stuff is there, like critiquing the performances, etc., but also some quasi-philosophical ramblings that I just put on page without really thinking.  And there’s probably spoilers.  And it’s REALLY long.  Be warned 😛 **

It just set box office records for both a single day and an opening weekend.  In 24 hours it became the #1 movie on IMDB’s top 250 movies of all time.  Every major review has just about called it the best film of 2008, and if not, at least demanded a posthumous Oscar nomination for the late Heath Ledger.  Quite simply, more hype has surrounded “The Dark Knight” than any movie that I can remember since, oh, at least the first Star Wars prequel.  This hype has become a juggernaut that you’d think couldn’t possibly deliver.  So, does “The Dark Knight” live up to the hype?

Yup.

OK, maybe the #1 movie of all time on IMDB after a day is a little over-the-top.  But leaving aside the nonsense generated by that out of control technological terror of a website, I truly see “The Dark Knight” as a defining point in where superhero movies, crime capers, action films, and cinema in general is headed.  It isn’t merely a vastly entertaining film (one of the most adrenaline-fueled, entertaining films I’ve seen in recent memory, in fact), but a vastly important one.  True, Batman’s exciting exploits and role as a metaphoric hero figure are vital here, but in a way that’s much more emotionally resonant, much grittier, and much more real than your typical superhero movie that glorifies extraordinary abilities and makes the hero out to be a kind of flesh-and-blood deity.  With “The Dark Knight,” the last vestiges of the traditional “superhero movie” have been swept away, as the focus isn’t on a superhero we could shrug off as something that wouldn’t exist in our world, because the Gotham City that we see here, for all intents and purposes, is the real world.  Hell, even a complete reversal of such is done right, like the absurdly over-the-top Joker (to the point of not even being human) and an increased focus on Batman whereas the movie’s predecessor, the also-wonderful “Batman Begins”, put alter-ego Bruce Wayne front-and-center.  Gritty or scintillating, real or purely metaphorical and over-the-top, “The Dark Knight” could really do no wrong.  A simple comic book movie or superhero movie it isn’t.  It’s simply one of the best crime capers and action/adventure films I’ve ever seen.

If you believe anything IMDB says, then supposedly one of Christopher Nolan’s main influences when making “The Dark Knight” was the excellent crime thriller “Heat.”  And it shows.  “Heat’s” main set piece was a bank robbery that was just epic in scope: a step-by-step process of a robbery gone wrong and minutes upon minutes of thrilling gunfire.  In “The Dark Knight,” a similar bank robbery is merely the appetizer.  Sure, the robbers here are wearing clown masks and the Joker’s grand entrance via schoolbus is bizarre and jarring to say the least, but what we have is a thrilling heist, complete with double-crossings, gunfire, and civilians bearing the brunt of it all, and it’s all in the mold of the violently quick, gritty realism of “Heat.”  That sense of exhilarating yet realistic action stays there throughout “The Dark Knight,” from the daring kidnapping of a mob accountant in Hong Kong to a hostage rescue in an unfinished skyscraper to a simply awe-inspiring car chase involving an armored car, a bazooka, the introduction of the Batpod, and a truck being flipped in a way that made the packed house around me gasp in amazement.  It almost makes me ashamed that I called the big car chase in the new Indiana Jones movie among the most exhilarating in recent memory.  That was child’s play compared to this.  This nighttime chase through both the underground ghetto and the topside metropolis of Gotham was just about flawless: not too memorable as to drown out the rest of the movie around it a la “The Matrix Reloaded,” edited and shot perfectly (with some the most invisible and least intrusive special effects I’ve encountered) so that it wasn’t too much to take in.

And speaking of editing, lock up “The Dark Knight’s” editor for some major nominations right now.  For all you film snobs out there, you know in those introductory film studies course where you’re forced to sit through turn-of-the-century fare like “The Great Train Robbery” and the early films of D.W. Griffith to marvel at the earliest uses of parallel editing, splicing together separate events so that they run parallel to each other in sequence?  Well “The Dark Knight” may as well be the 21st century equivalent of one of those: it is the textbook example of how to get parallel editing right so that you’re constantly on the edge of your seat.  In one particular stretch, D.A. Harvey Dent and Dent’s and Bruce Wayne’s love interest Rachel are tied up and rigged with explosives in separate sites, saying their tentative goodbyes to each other via telephone, while Batman races through Gotham towards one and Commissioner Gordon and Gotham’s finest race towards the other, all while the Joker stews and plots in a jail cell.  Later, Batman fights his way through thugs and hostages while two boats full of passengers find themselves prey to the Joker’s deadliest plot to this point, this while Gordon races to stop a threat all too personal, and possibly towards his doom.  These scenes of incredible complexity, with so much going on, are edited together so flawlessly, so seamlessly, that you care about each and every person that are literally miles apart, yet inexorably linked by peril.  Christopher Nolan’s accomplished what I thought was impossible: make genuine suspense out of non-stop action.  Alfred Hitchcock would probably be appalled by such a notion, but it works: we’re inundated with a cackling uber-villain, explosions, punching and kicking, sonar vision, racing cars, trucks, and Batpods, and ticking timebombs, but damned if I wasn’t on the edge of my seat for every moment of it.  I’ve found a new dictionary-worthy definition for action-thriller, and it is “The Dark Knight.”

Of course, the quintessential action-thriller needs complex situations and especially characters that you care about to make it quintessential.  It’s those situations and those characters steeped in the real that validate the suspense, so that you care about what happens to them.  First, just in terms of the environment itself, Nolan did a thing of brilliance in using the city of Chicago as a stand-in for Gotham.  As far as I could tell, at least most of the exterior scenes were shot on-location rather than a soundstage (again, something Hitchcock would be appalled by 😛 ), and for once, Gotham feels like a city that could actually exist within the world as we know it.  The Gotham of Tim Burton’s Batman movies were delightfully surreal and macabre, yes, but were basically pure fantasy and as far as I could tell were meant as pure metaphor for the blackness residing deep within Bruce Wayne’s soul.  And Joel Schumacker’s abominations of Batman movies, well, that Gotham was a technological monstrosity that was beyond cartoonish and just plain silly.    Even some of the Gotham in “The Dark Knight’s” direct predecessor “Batman Begins” somehow just seemed…fake to me.  The Narrows and Arkham Asylum, especially, seemed very sound stage-ish – perhaps keeping in line with the comic book feel, but still, you just knew that this was an imaginary world.  Here, though, there’s no more use denying that what we’re seeing is a real city: not Chicago, but somehow Gotham is now a real place with real people.  So now the Joker’s bizarre machinations for chaos, his crimes towards innocents and his forcing innocents to harm fellow innocents, may as well be happening in our backyard.  This world without rules, where far-away threats from a maniac in clown makeup (called a terrorist at least once: very topical 😛 ) can force civilians to commit assassinations, hit so much closer to home this time around. There’s no more fear gas or climactic fight on an elevated train with Ra’s al Ghul that enabled the remnants of a comic book feel in “Batman Begins.”  That comic book feel has vanished, and in its place is an all-too-real cackling maniac and some crazy dude in a bat costume out to stop him: it’s a good versus evil battle in an arena we might as well be able to walk into tomorrow on the way to work, and it has almost none of the over-glorification of your typical superhero story.

Scenery’s all well and good in establishing the mood of it all and the audience’s level of emotional involvement, but what good would that be without the characters and the actors who play them 😛 ?  Well where “Batman Begins” began (pun…) in setting up these characters, “The Dark Knight” takes them in unexpected, twisted places.  Morgan Freeman (who’s clearly not getting enough work these days 😛 ) thankfully gets more to do this time around, acting as Bruce/Batman’s eyes and ears in the worlds of both big business and crimefighting, while Michael Caine as Alfred is again the comic relief (in one of those rare dark movies that calls for as little comic relief as possible) with a heart of gold.  Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel is a pretty vast improvement over Katie Holmes, who was really the only ill-advised casting choice in the first movie.  And Gary Oldman, he of some incredibly over-the-top performances in years past, has his role as the understated (in other words, incredibly “normal” for the likes of Gary Oldman 😛 ) Gordon vastly expanded this time around, and it may be some of the best acting the man’s ever done.  Gordon now becomes a fully-realized character with his own motivations and a late critical plot point that’ll put him in the spotlight and make him just as important a character as Harvey Dent, the Joker, or even our titular hero himself.  

The strangest bit of characterization, I thought (well, not Joker strange, but still strange) was Christian Bale as Bruce/Batman.  One of the things I admired most about “Batman Begins” was how almost all of the focus was on Bruce Wayne and his origins, his motivations, and his own personal evolution of the Batman, this figure that transfers his own fear onto the fears of the common criminal.  That movie was about the man behind the mask, rather than the mask itself.  Here, though, Nolan went in a very different direction, and it surprised me.  Christian Bale got surprisingly little “screentime” without the costume, simply as Bruce Wayne: I’d say at least 2/3 of Bale’s screentime occurs behind the mask with that eye-rollingly deep voice.  Of course “Batman Begins” got the origin story out of the way, so inevitably at least some focus on Bruce and his personal demons will diminish in a sequel, but to this extent?  As far as I could tell, the last film’s themes concerning Bruce’s guilt and inner demons and fears were completely abandoned this time around.  Now, Bruce Wayne was just…there.  Batman took center-stage, and Bruce Wayne transitioned from deeply psychological character to billionaire playboy: mere alter-ego.  Well, if that’s the case, Bruce has done what he set out to do: become a symbol, and in “The Dark Knight,” Batman is that divisive symbol that gives Gotham both hope and dread.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the bat himself has his moment in the sun, making quite a sacrifice late in the game, as his self-imposed fate actually sent a chill down my spine.  Though if that is the case that a masked avenger now takes center stage, everything I said about “The Dark Knight” being the anti-comic book comic book movie has gotta be thrown down the drain, right?

Not exactly.  As weird as Bruce’s portrayal seemed, I think Nolan did it for a reason.  Bruce Wayne certainly isn’t the focus of the movie the way he was in “Batman Begins”, and in a way, not even Batman is the focus.  Just as there’s no mention of Batman in the title of the movie, the Caped Crusader is ultimately not the emotional crux of “The Dark Knight.”  Nor is the crazed Joker, or the love triangle subject Rachel, or Gordon (though he does come awfully close to carrying the emotional weight of the movie on his shoulders).  It’s Harvey Dent.  Batman and the Joker may represent some kind of yin and yang, good and evil, but it’s Harvey who most effectively embodies this idea of man’s capacity to commit both good and evil, and his struggle to keep those competing forces in balance.  Even before the tragedy that makes him quite literally live up to his nickname of Two-Face, we see Harvey Dent as a good man with great ambitions to make Gotham safe, but also a man with demons who will (involuntarily?) go down some very dark paths to make things right.  And Aaron Eckhardt does a wonderful job playing this good man, perhaps the most honorable character we’ve seen thus far in Nolan’s reimagining of the Batman mythology, with that inner anger and capacity for evil (some past trauma, perhaps?) barely touching the surface.  Of course the film’s final act calls for him to go over-the-top, and he does that just as nicely and even convincingly, and even then it was a nicely nuanced performance of a troubled man.  Good stuff. 

Didn’t really think I’d skip town without talking about Heath Ledger, did you 😉 ?  Figured I’d save it for last, as a memorial or something like that to the late Heath.  Well, it was Ledger’s performance as the Joker (probably coupled with his very untimely death) that pretty much drove the movie’s hype machine single-handedly, the one thing about the movie that garnered nothing short of universal praise, and probably the sole reason why at least half of moviegoers went to see the movie at all.  After actually seeing it, I must say that “over the top” doesn’t begin to describe it: he chews scenery like no actor in a single performance I’ve ever seen, and there’s not a shred of humanity or emotional resonance to make this a “realistic” character.

Quite simply, it was brilliant.  So brilliant that I wouldn’t be surprised if down the line it’ll be one of my Great Performances (a new section I’m adding to this little blog of mine, by the way.  First feature’ll probably be released sometime this week, so check it out 😉 ).

For decades, the Joker of the comic book pages has not only been Batman’s arch nemesis, but his foil, his opposite, the chaos to Batman’s order.  And this is exactly what Heath Ledger’s utterly bizarre take on the character is.  This Joker is pure chaos, simple as that.  He steals and murders and induces others to murder simply for the sake of instilling chaos and fulfilling a sick kind of glee.  He has no identity other than the scarred, cracking makeup-wearing psychopath we see on-screen.  He comes from nowhere and has no past (he never can get the story of how he got his facial scars straight 😆 ).  He is chaos incarnate.  And whereas Harvey Dent is the film’s thematic center, the embodiment of the clash between good and evil, it isn’t quite that simple when it comes to ol’ Joker and ol’ Batman.  Batman is far from pure good, with Bruce Wayne’s inner turmoil and Batman’s status as a fear-inspiring vigilante.  Batman is a symbol of a certain capacity for good drifting within a sea of moral corruption.  So basically, he’s a symbol of the very world around us 😕 .  So add to that all-too real world pure chaos, and you should get some…interesting results, as humanity’s deepest instincts for survival and deepest bloodlust comes pouring to the surface.  “Introduce a little anarchy… Upset the established order… Well then everyone loses their minds!”, the Joker says, and as crazed a figure as he is, he couldn’t be more right.

The Joker revels in instilling chaos for the sake of chaos, and as such a volatile figure the late Heath Ledger lives up to all of that impossible-to-live-up-to hype and then some.  It’s the small things, the nuances, that really stand out here: the tongue licking the scarred lips like a lizard, the Chicago-esque accent, the complete lack of shame in disguising himself as a nurse in broad daylight, that sick pleasure he takes during Batman’s rather physical interrogation.  The Joker’s theme “music” (comprised of one note sounding like a fallout alarm) is a brilliant touch.  Not since “Jaws” has a music cue so effectively put a sense of absolute dread in the pit of your stomach that something very bad is about to happen.  Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker for Tim Burton was over-the-top, yes, but was cartoonish, and was just a clown who happened to commit crimes.  Heath Ledger’s Joker is no cartoon, and certainly no clown.  He’s straight out of a sick nightmare.  In that regard, I think the comparisons being made to other famous movie villains work just fine.  Consider “No Country for Old Men’s” Anton Chigurh: a hitman with no backstory who betrays no emotions in carrying out his out-of-control killing spree, for seemingly no purpose.  He represents man’s deepest capacity for evil the way the Joker is man’s deepest capacity for chaos.  Or “preacher” Harry Powell of “The Night of the Hunter”: killing widows because of a calling from God, just as the Joker’s calling is simply to instill chaos.  Or Hannibal Lecter of “The Silence of the Lambs”: a sick cannibal who is well-spoken and even charming, forming a kind of deep bond with Agent Starling: the yin to her yang.  The Joker, after all, is very clever in the sickening things he says and does, and has a similar foil-like relationship with Batman (and what a wonderfully bizarre “chemistry” Heath Ledger and Christian Bale end up having.  These really are true adversaries, each meeting their match in more ways than one).

And yet, this “chaos incarnate,” in a sick sort of way, lives up to his name.  So many of Heath Ledger’s mannerisms are so over-the-top and, of course, sadistic (a certain magic trick involving a pencil is guaranteed to haunt and disgust) that they inspire a very macabre kind of humor.  More than once, the audience I watched with laughed at things very disturbing yet very funny (his futzing with a bomb detonator in broad daylight in full nurse’s regalia immediately comes to mind).  Maybe it was just to mentally alleviate oneself of such a dark movie and such a sick character, who knows.  I really wish I could, you know, describe those little things, those little ticks and mannerisms, that make Ledger’s performance as brilliant as it is, but it’s just impossible.  Who knew such a one-dimensional character could own such a complex performance?  It really must be seen to be believed.  Just as “justice” would probably be the last word in the Joker’s vocabulary, no description of mine could do this performance of Ledger’s justice.

Over 2 1/2 hours is a tall order for a summer blockbuster, especially when there’s a lot of the dreaded dialogue (gasp).  Is “The Dark Knight” too long?  Probably.  Ultimately it probably lacked the perfect fluidity of “Batman Begins'” plot structure and seamless ability to weave past and present together.  Also, I thought it started out a little slowly, and God help anyone who came in without seeing “Batman Begins”, because Nolan just jumped right in.  But I think that’s all for a reason.  This is, after all, the movie that effectively puts the kibosh on the prototypical comic book movie, and certainly discussions about business deals and finding marked bills and the perils of indicting 500 mid-level mob enforcers isn’t something you’d expect to find in a slam-pow comic book.  From moment # 1 the tone of this movie is very serious, and it’s clear that Christopher Nolan is making every effort to make this revisioning of Gotham and its conflicted protector as naturally as possible, so that comic book becomes life.  And in that regard, he succeeds on every level.  It’s ironic, then, that in the darkest and most serious “superhero movie” I’ve seen (not to mention simply the best by miles and miles), the most memorable figure by far is a cackling psychopath who can’t take anything seriously.  That’s just one of the many paradoxes that should on paper make “The Dark Knight” a deeply flawed film, but ultimately make it one that is unique, bold, and great.  It’s an action film steeped in realism, and yet its protagonist dresses as a bat and wears an emblem on his chest.  It concerns realistic people facing real problems, and yet its theme of good versus evil, order versus chaos, seems incredibly simplistic.  Consider the Joker’s final monologue where, using crazed metaphors and an even more crazed logic, he summarizes that theme in its entirety, as well as the nature of his relationship with Batman that has endured on the comic book page for decades.  It’s a speech that’s preachy concerning the thematic symbolism of what we’ve watched for the past 2 1/2 hours, it’s over-the-top, and his crazed logic is utterly chaotic.  It doesn’t fit at all with a “realistic” and serious film, but at this point, we’re fully immersed in the Joker’s world without rules.  So why so serious?

9/10

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1 comment so far

  1. movie buff on

    i still wish Katie Holmes had stayed on board as Rachel Dawes for the Dark Knight; it was like the time spent getting familiar with her character in Batman Begins was wasted…


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