Countdown to “The Dark Knight Rises” #2: “The Dark Knight
This is my old review of The Dark Knight, followed by some additional comments.
–When directors who have made a successful indie film decide to enter the mainstream, it seems most of them these days end up compromising everything that made that indie film successful, and good, in the first place. It’s a rare director who decides to enter the mainstream and is able to keep their sensibilities intact. On all available evidence, Christopher Nolan seems to be one of the latter kinds of director. In my opinion, he has yet to put a foot wrong since his indie thriller Memento from 2001, and has kept his intelligence and wits about him through even making a remake (Insomnia) and a comic book movie (Batman Begins). Now, with The Dark Knight, he takes on the challenge of a sequel, and proves himself equal to the task.
-The world is a far less rosier picture for Batman (Christian Bale), and for Bruce Wayne, than we saw in the last film. Although Batman is no longer pursued by the police (and is the trusted ally of Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman)), he has to deal with Batman imitators, who get in the way of the real criminals he has to fight (the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) returns in a cameo). As for Wayne, he’s wondering if maybe the time is right to give Batman up and lead a normal life, especially when he sees the love of his life, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), still a prosecutor, involved with her boss, district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who is promising to clean up Gotham. As if that wasn’t enough, despite the best efforts of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who is now Wayne’s most trusted associate at Wayne Enterprises, there’s a lawyer named Reese (Joshua Harto) who knows Batman’s secret identity. And it turns out a merger Wayne has planned with a Hong Kong company may fall through because of their ties to mobsters led by Maroni (Eric Roberts).
-All of that, however, is just a warm-up for the Joker (Heath Ledger). Although he does seem to have a plan in his head, it’s not one he feels comfortable sharing with anyone else, except that he wants to bring society to its knees. He not only seems to be able to get in and out of wherever he pleases, he also lives up to his self-proclaiming title as an “agent of chaos”. He ends up killing a number of people, and trying to force Batman to reveal his true identity or he’ll end up killing more. All of that, however, is a warm-up for the ultimate chaos, and he forces Batman, Dent, and even Gotham City itself, to make some very hard choices.
-One of the things I liked so much about Batman Begins was how Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer (who returns for this film, along with Nolan’s brother Jonathan) returned Batman to the grittiness of the early comics and Frank Miller’s reworking of the series (as well as the animated series), away from Tim Burton’s heavy-handed opera approach (yes, I know I’m in the minority here) and Joel Schumacher’s campy debacle. In this film, Nolan ups the ante. Except for the fact of Batman, the Joker, Scarecrow, and (spoiler alert) Two Face (end spoiler alert) being here, you might as well be watching a crime drama. Nolan said one of his inspirations for this film was Michael Mann’s Heat, and you get that not only from the opening bank robbery (and a very clever casting nod as well), but also the rest of the film. There is a lot of fast editing (by Lee Smith, who also cut the previous Batman film as well as Nolan’s The Prestige), especially during the chase scene in the middle of the film, but it never feels incoherent. Nor do the plot twists, despite how complicated they get (one character thought dead turns out not to be), because Nolan never loses sight of the basic thread of the story, a meditation on the very nature of good and evil. Wayne grows to admire Dent because he sees Dent as the true hero, not Batman. But as Dent warns early in the film, you can either become the hero or the villain in your own story, and it can all change.
-Which leads us to Ledger’s performance as the Joker. There’s already talk now how Ledger’s performance is overrated, and that any talk of Oscar is only because of his tragic death. Ledger probably won’t get a nomination (it is a comic book movie, which Academy members still frown upon, and posthumous nods are always a tricky thing to predict), but for my money, he deserves it. I, and many other writers, have described characters in movies and books as pure id, but as the Joker, Ledger comes closest. As much as I enjoyed Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Burton’s movie, he wasn’t as entertaining, or more importantly, unpredictable and terrifying as Ledger is here. Whether telling you any number of stories on how he got the scars his clown makeup covers, or even trapped in an interrogation room, he gets under your skin in a way few villains have. And while the comic books have stressed how Batman and the Joker have the most symbiotic relationship of any hero/villain relationship (the Joker even says to Batman later in the film, “You complete me”, and the sick thing is, he means it), this is the only time it’s ever been captured on screen (even the animated series didn’t). The Joker represents either the chaos society will fall into if Batman isn’t there, or the chaos Batman is afraid will continue if he keeps up his work, and either way, Ledger deserves all the credit for making that come to life.
-There are a couple of niggling flaws here. Oldman, who is otherwise fine as Gordon, is saddled with a couple of speeches stating everything the movie implied to that point (even though, as a friend of mine pointed out, the final one is a callback to “The Killing Joke”, the comic that was an unofficial inspiration of this movie), and therefore feel heavy-handed. And while Maggie Gyllenhaal is a better actress than Katie Holmes (and is much more convincing as a prosecutor), she can’t do much with the role of Dawes (although you certainly understand why both Wayne and Dent want her). But those are minor. In addition to Oldman, returning actors Freeman and Michael Caine (as Wayne’s ever-faithful servant Alfred) are reliably good, and Bale once again is good at both being the tortured Batman and the devil-may-care (at least on the outside) Wayne. The real surprise here is Eckhart. After his promising debut in 1997’s In the Company of Men, he’s had a checkered movie career, with as many good performances (Any Given Sunday, Erin Brockovich) as bad ones (The Black Dahlia). Here, however, he captures both sides of Dent’s soul (which Batman and the Joker, in essence, are fighting for), and is utterly convincing every step of the way. In the usual matter of Hollywood hype, some are already calling The Dark Knight a masterpiece. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s definitely the best Hollywood movie I’ve seen all year.
And now for my additional comments.
-The unsung heroes of the movie are composer Hans Zimmer and cellist Martin Tillman. Zimmer scored the film (as he has all the Batman movies Nolan has directed, though for this one, he shared duties with James Newton Howard) and decided on the music that would play whenever the Joker appeared on screen to threaten someone, particularly at the fundraiser Bruce Wayne throws Harvey Dent. And though Zimmer eventually layered some guitar sounds over it, Tillman basically provided the sound. As good as I thought Ledger was as the Joker, the music helped make the character that much more unnerving.
-On the special features on the 2-disc DVD, Nolan, cinematographer Wally Pfister (who, as I mentioned in my review of The Prestige, has shot all of Nolan’s films since Memento), and other crew members mentioned how Nolan wanted to shoot more of the film not only on location (as opposed to the sound stages that made up the bulk of Batman Begins), but also at daytime. The location shooting (mostly Chicago) adds, of course, to the gritty feel Nolan was going after, but the daylight shooting is just as important an element. Contrary to what my review said, it adds to the idea things are actually getting somewhat better in Gotham, but it also shows just how unpredictable the Joker is; we’ve been taught to think crime is a nighttime activity, but he pulls off many of his schemes, including the bank robbery that opens the film, in broad daylight. This is also appropriate in the fact that, unlike Batman and Dent (and, to a lesser extent, Gordon), the Joker has no hidden side to him, or at least not one he’s willing to share (given the way he changes his story all the time).
-The standard MO of just about every sequel is “bigger is better”. And 99.9% of the time, that doesn’t mean bigger as in “more ambitious”, but bigger as in “let’s see how much louder and more explosive we can get!”, which is one of the reasons why I generally dislike most sequels. Nolan does have a lot more action scenes, and increases the amount of villain characters, but he doesn’t fall into that trap. While I applauded Burton’s ambition in his second Batman film (more than can be said for the two Schumacher films), I didn’t end up liking it, and one of the reasons was it seemed like the three villains of the film (Catwoman, Max Shreck and the Penguin) each belonged in their own movie. By contrast, in this movie, Nolan is able to connect the Harvey Dent/Two-Face, the Joker, and Maroni and the mob not only through the plot (Dent going after the mob is what leads them to make a deal with the Joker and sets the whole thing going), but also thematically. Also, it’s a nice balance of how, while Harvey’s story is somewhat of an origin story (though they don’t get into explaining his distrust of cops; that comes out in the special features and the novelization), the Joker is simply presented as is, and they balance each other out in that way and others (as tired as I, and others, seem to be of origin stories, Harvey’s is also presented pretty well).
-The major theme that got discussed by people about Nolan’s movie was how far one has to go to stop evil. Obviously, in our post 9/11 world, this is an important question for all of us, and especially back in 2008 when this was initially released, and it’s a question that should always be debated. And out of that also comes the idea of who gets to administer justice, and how, which is also a question worth debating. Surprisingly, though, one aspect of Nolan’s film that didn’t get picked up on was how the movie, when you came right down to it, was basically saying, “Print the legend”* Granted, Nolan got somewhat heavy-handed in stating this near the end, but for the most part, it’s pretty eloquently stated. It’s also a continuation of the first film, when Bruce (and before him, Henri Ducard) was talking about the need of society to have a heroic symbol in order to function. It is, of course, also interesting how a superhero film decides the real hero worth preserving isn’t the superhero, but the one who’s the public figure of law and order, but from what I’ve read of the comics, and certainly in the animated series, that’s been a pretty consistent approach with Batman in general.
-Most of the humor of the film is in the dark, edgy variety (keeping with the tone of the film), particularly whenever the Joker is on screen (as when he isn’t successful in blowing up an empty hospital – at first). However, there are very funny moments throughout, and not just from Bruce bantering with Alfred (when Bruce is about to reveal he’s Batman – or so he thinks – Alfred idly wonders if he’ll be arrested as an accomplice, and Bruce responds, “I’m going to tell them the whole thing was all *your* idea”) or with Lucius (when Bruce wants to know how to get back on a plane without it landing, Fox smiles and says, “Now that’s more like it”). For me, the three funniest moments of the film – aside from Joker moments – are (1) when Harvey calmly disarms the mob witness who tries to shoot him, questions his choice of firearms, and then, when the judge orders the witness to be removed, says, “But your Honor, I’m not done!”, (2) when Coleman Reese (Joshua Harto), a lawyer at Wayne Enterprises, tells Lucius he knows Wayne is Batman, and names his price, Lucius responds, “Let me get this straight; You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands, and your plan is to *blackmail* this person? Good luck”, and (3) one of the running gags of both the Batman comics and the animated series is how Batman will show up out of nowhere and then just disappear the same way, whether in fights or just when he’s talking to people (the website TV Tropes calls this the “Stealth Hi/Bye” trope); when Harvey experiences this for the first time (when he’s meeting Batman about how to catch a mobster who’s fled the country), Gordon, who is all too familiar with this habit of Batman’s, simply shrugs and says, “He does that.”
Next up, my review of The Dark Knight Rises. I also may write a post dealing with the predictable but still horrifying fallout from the (few) negative reviews the movie has received.
*If the movie’s IMdB trivia page is to be believed, the movies Nolan showed the cast and crew before shooting were Heat (obviously, as I alluded to in my original review), Cat People (the original), Citizen Kane, King Kong (again, the original), Batman Begins, Black Sunday (the Frankenheimer film based on Thomas Harris’ novel, not the Mario Bava film), A Clockwork Orange and Stalag 17. I’m a little surprised, given again the theme of the movie, that The Man who Shot Liberty Valance wasn’t one of the films he screened.