The Dark Knight is relentless at wanting to tell a very big story. Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan scrims the silver screen, then abruptly pulls it back, as if a grifter, conning us into a high stakes game of three-card Monte.
Batman, played again by the chiseled Christian Bale, has evolved into a commercial franchise for Warner Brothers, and they have been highly successful in keeping it that way. The tone has turned very dark since the Tim Burton days and I give them a lot of credit for just coming out and saying it. It is after all, The Dark Knight. I prefer it dark, so I’m all in on this one.
But it’s not the Batman that turned me so easily to the dark side, oh no. Bruce Wayne and Batman are worn out. Technology now dominates his modus operandi and Bruce is in the throes of a mid-life crisis. The problem is he already has all the toys, so what’s he to do?
He is constantly looking for his replacement. Someone who can take over and turn the city around, allowing him to retire. That someone is Gotham’s golden boy, DA Harvey Dent, played with venerable strength by Aaron Eckhart. Everyone wants Harvey to succeed, especially Wayne. But Wayne chases an old flame, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is become smitten with Dent and on the edge of committing to him. She knows Wayne’s secret and once said she would marry him if Batman permanently disappeared. I guess we can’t really blame Wayne for wanting to get out. It’s the only thing he has not been successful at doing his entire life.
But Christian Bale and Batman are completely out done by Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker. Mr. Ledger’s performance is a tour de force of blackness. He makes even me want to be a bad guy. Like all great villains, he is evil, persuasive and seductive. The Joker is a twisted combination of Hannibal Lechter (Anthony Hopkins), Amon Goeth (Ralph Finnes in Schindler’s List) and Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton). Mr. Ledger even sounds and dresses like Beetlejuice. The Dark Knight would not be nearly as entertaining or effective without Mr. Ledger. This is an artist who has truly risked a lot to forward his craft. Perhaps he risked too much.
Chicago is an inspired choice for this gangster gone mad vs. lawman story. After all, we are home to Al Capone, the St. Valentine’s Massacre, and the greatest political machine on the planet. We’re not ready for reform.
The visuals are stunning thanks to Wally Pfister’s lensing and the pace is breakneck, courtesy of Lee Smith’s crisp editing skills. For some reason the filmmakers felt they needed two veteran composers, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard to score the film. They bring out the darkness in the moment, but it doesn’t last much beyond the final credit. This exposes one of many instances of excessiveness on the part of the studio that was unnecessary.
The Joker is in complete control of the chaos, and is able to bring Gotham to its knees. He even plays out a classic college social experiment with two boats full of people trying to leave a city under siege. Each one is armed with explosives and is in possession of the other ships’ detonator. They are informed that one ship will be blown up at midnight, unless the passengers blow up the other one first. The Joker has his way with nearly everyone, and tricks Batman into rescuing the wrong person, leaving Dent in a downward spiral so bad he falls into the Joker’s trap.
Unfortunately we have lost Mr. Ledger. As we look back at the arc of his career that led him to this performance, it’s clear the industry and movie going public has suffered a great loss. But Batman will live on, and we will all be looking forward to the next installment.
Recommended if you’re looking for a blockbuster with intellect. But don’t bring the kids. Check out the official The Dark Knight web site here.