The Dark Knight
Director : Christopher Nolan
Screenplay : Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan (story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer; based on characters created by Bob Kane)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne / Batman), Heath Ledger (The Joker), Aaron Eckhart (Harvey Dent), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Rachel Dawes), Gary Oldman (Lt. James Gordon), Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), Monique Curnen (Det. Ramirez), Ron Dean (Detective Wuertz), Chin Han (Lau), Nestor Carbonell (Mayor), Eric Roberts (Salvatore Maroni), Ritchie Coster (The Chechen), Anthony Michael Hall (Mike Engel)
The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s grim, brooding, and very nearly brilliant sequel to his 2005 reboot Batman Begins, is perhaps the most scintillating and incisive film about our current state of affairs to hit the big screen since the “war on terror” began. While numerous filmmakers (Paul Haggis, Kimberly Peirce, Irwin Winkler) have attempted to make films that address the dark minefield of the American psyche via the war in Iraq, their over-earnest and literalist approaches have driven audiences away and underwhelmed critics, which is why Nolan’s metaphorical approach feels so right. The war for the soul of the fictional Gotham City--waged by a madman who “wants to see the world burn,” a conflicted self-made hero whose attempts to inspire the people are continually backfiring, and a “white knight” whose steadfast belief in the inherent functionality of the justice system causes his ultimate undoing--is a frighteningly effective mirror for the world today, which, with each passing hour, seems that much closer to the abyss.
Scripted by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, The Dark Knight is laced with the depths of thematic aspiration that can catapult a summer tentpole into the realms of the mythic. So many films now are adapted from comic books, and it seems like all of them come with some form of attention-grabbing emotional and social baggage, from the obvious (V for Vendetta), to the awkward (Hulk), to the romanticized (Spider-Man 2), to the carefully refined (Iron Man). Thus, to have thematic ambitions is not unique or really even that ambitious; it’s expected terrain. But, to infuse them into the heart of the story the way Nolan does, to spin the action and emotional involvement around a core of tightrope philosophical conundrums and to pull it off like a stunning highwire act is a real achievement. (Interestingly, the film’s thematic audaciousness extends to its marketing, which features a poster of Batman standing in front of a high-rise with a burning hole in the middle that is shaped like a bat, but immediately brings to mind 9/11.)
The question of how far Batman will go to fight injustice--essentially, how much power can one man have and still maintain his humanity?--is one of The Dark Knight’s underlying philosophical questions, which is all the more intriguing given that the film’s injustice takes the form of a lunatic who is so unhinged that he cannot be understood in conventional terms. The only way we can make sense of real-life terrorism is to link it to a cause (religious doctrine, ethnic wars, the desire for control, etc.). But what happens when terrorism exists simply for its own sake? We have become so inured to the notion of true evil by the rhetoric of the “war on terror” that we’ve lost sight of how the most frightening thing of all is that which escapes the terms by which we seek to define it.
The Dark Knight arguably has three main characters: Bruce Wayne, the billionaire industrialist who moonlights as the shadowy Batman, a vigilante figure who works closely with police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), but is technically a fugitive from the law; The Joker (Heath Ledger), a psychotic terrorist in ghoulish melting clown make-up who appears in the story without background or agenda save his desire to create chaos and instill fear; and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a crusading district attorney in whom Batman puts his faith to ensure the future of the tormented Gotham City. The interconnectedness of these three characters brings to mind not just the duality of the human soul, but its impossible complexity.
The Joker happily concedes to Batman near the end of the film that they need each other, and their simultaneous standing as “freaks” outside of society is the closest The Dark Knight comes to evoking Tim Burton’s two Batman films (Burton’s poetry is visual while Nolan’s is philosophical). The fact that the Joker seems to relish creating scenarios that force ordinary people into life-or-death moral decisions is a telling reflection of Batman’s own moral dualism, which requires that he constantly break the law in order to serve society. Dent, on the other hand, is in competition with Wayne for the love and affection of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), an assistant district attorney and Wayne’s childhood friend. Dent ominously notes that heroes either die being heroes or live long enough to become the villain, which is as dour an assessment of heroics as I’ve ever heard and one that the film is entirely focused on proving (for those who know Dent’s future, watching him as the crusading “white knight” has a kind of sick fatality to it).
Like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight looks unlike previous Batman films in its relentless pursuit of physical reality. The lighting and camerawork by cinematographer Wally Pfister (who has shot all of Nolan’s films) evokes police thrillers from the ’70s, especially the opening bank robbery sequence that establishes with a minimum of visual panache just how high the stakes are. This is, without a doubt, a relentlessly dark film, visually and thematically, and the manner in which Nolan ties the two together draws you in and holds you tightly despite the long running time (nearly two and a half hours) and the sometimes plodding nature of the narrative, particularly in the last half hour when it starts to fracture into multiple subplots that are clear setups for a third installment.
Of course, we know that, since his death earlier this year, Heath Ledger will not be returning to recreate his role as the Joker, which is the centerpiece of the film and the element that will likely draw in many viewers who are curious about the morbid potentials of seeing what Ledger, who is arguably the best actor of his generation, did in his final role. To say that Ledger redefines the Joker isn’t right because what he really does is nail the longstanding essence of the character in a way that is creepy, unnerving, and downright provocative. With his shaky mannerisms, constant lip-smacking, and deviously quivering voice, Ledger’s Joker is the epitome of everything we fear in lost humanity, which is why his purposeful lack of a backstory is so crucial. Rather than being the explicable product of abuse or neglect or being accidentally dumped into a vat of toxic waste, the Joker is absolutely monstrous because he cannot be explained. He simply is, and that is the scariest notion of all.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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