The Dark Knight (10/10)

Burned into your brain after you’ve seen “The Dark Knight” will be a deranged face painted a jagged white with grotesquely exaggerated lipstick, two uncomfortably visible scars protruding from the corners of the mouth, oily green longish hair, and a cackling maniacal laugh that truly is the stuff of nightmares.

But not only will you be left with Heath Ledger’s compulsorily watchable performance (more on that later), you’ll also walk away with some rather dark themes and gripping psychological questions that will probably stay longer with you than any comic book movie ever has. The Dark Knight is the best superhero movie ever made, and not only that, it’s the best movie of the year and features many of the best performances of the decade.

It’s been several months since the events of Batman Begins took place, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is finding out that roaming around the city as a caped crusader isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Though he has succeeded in squelching the criminal underworld’s activity, copycats roam the streets, wearing fake bat costumes and claiming that they’re doing just as much good as the Dark Knight.

Then there’s Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham’s new DA who has done more than Batman ever could in bringing the city’s scum to justice. He’s the white knight to Batman’s dark one, a man of unquestionable moral character and a solid belief that Batman is a necessary evil in the dark and brooding times in which Gotham finds itself.

Enter the Joker (Heath Ledger), a psychopathic killer with little on his mind except causing chaos and bringing the city of Gotham to its knees, and he has his eyes particularly on Dent and the Batman, determined to corrupt these two incorruptibles.

This triad forms the backbone of the entire movie, and the interaction between them is darkly fascinating, touching on a myriad of themes, including terrorism, justice, evil, and crime. Superhero films have explored these kinds of things before, but never with such finesse and talent – the Dark Knight is not out of place being compared with “The Departed” and “The Godfather”; it’s an epic unpredictable crime saga composed of larger-than-life characters and a willingness to go some pretty dark places for the sake of the story, and it’s absorbing in every way.

Much moreso than Batman Begins, “The Dark Knight” is an ensemble epic, where Batman is not the main focus at all – the film may be named after him, but he’s just a small piece of the puzzle and part of the five major roles that make up the central story of the movie. Every character has their story and they all fit together perfectly, and the corresponding performances are just as strong.

Maggie Gyllenhall is Rachel Dawes, Harvey Dent’s love interest and Bruce’s ex-flame, who broke up with him because she couldn’t be with him as long as Gotham needed Batman. Now that Dent is looking like he’s set to make Batman obsolete, Bruce is interested in starting up their relationship again. She replaces Katie Holmes from the last one, and does an infinitely better job, playing her as a more mature, savvy, and active role in the affairs of the police and the DA instead of just a pretty face.

Gary Oldman is back as Chief of Police Gordon, and it’s absolutely astounding what he can do with such a small role. It’s slightly bigger than Gyllenhall’s and slightly smaller than Eckhart’s, but with the intensity with which he displays Gordon’s unabashed dedication to good, it’s always fun to watch him. Usually characters who are nothing but good in a film are boring, but Oldman razes that notion to the ground.

Christian Bale continues to show how great of an actor he truly is – Batman and Bruce Wayne have few lines in this movie but he makes every one of them true – he’s a man who has been broken by a dark past, whose actions to try to do good are being thwarted left and right, and he’s deeply tortured by the results.

Aaron Eckhart is a joyous surprise as Harvey Dent – at first he seems like he’s just going to be playing him like a straight arrow, but as the film unfolds he adds layers to his character with expertise and when a dramatic and horrific change occurs about an hour and a half into the film, Eckhart makes the transformation believable and engrossing despite not having much time in which to do it. It’s nearly an Oscar-worthy performance, but unfortunately for him he had to give this performance in a film with the best villain of the decade played one of the best actors of his generation – Heath Ledger as the Joker.

Ledger’s death rocked the entertainment world earlier this year, and profoundly affected hundreds of thousands of people, and though the pessimist may want to claim that the only reason his performance appears so good is because we want to remember him fondly, this view is simply naïve. Remember Jack Nicholson? Not after watching “The Dark Knight”, you won’t. For years Nicholson’s performance in Burton’s original “Batman” was widely considered to be one of the best villains of all time, but Ledger’s Joker is an entirely different beast that takes Nicholson’s performance and beats it to death while obliterating it from our memory.

Nicholson played the Joker as a showman, a demented three-ring circus clown who sprayed deadly acid from a flower on his lapel and cackled his way to world-renowned insanity. Ledger takes the Joker down a much darker road, and makes Nicholson’s performance look like, well, a joke. This Joker could kick Nicholson’s ass, cutting him open with dozens of knives because it meant he could “savor the pain more.”

But to reduce Ledger to merely comparisons to Nicholson would be an insult to the instantly classic and, I’ll say it, I’ll use the “P” word, perfect performance. We never find out who his daddy is (except in a scene that skewers and stabs the traditional idea of super-villains having some kind of emotionally powerful back-story), and we never truly understand why he’s doing all this, except to cause chaos, which is perhaps more terrifying than anything. As Wayne’s trusty butler Alfred puts it, “Some people just want to watch the world burn.”

And indeed that’s all the Joker does seem to want – appearing out of nowhere, with no traceable past, he wreaks havoc across the city like some kind of perverse ghost, a circus in town that nobody wants, and because of this freedom, Ledger is allowed full reign of his character. Ledger’s Joker is an instant classic not only because he plays him a lot more darker than Nicholson did (and in fact Ledger’s Joker is much closer to the original comics), but because of how much you never really think of him as Ledger. It’s to the actor’s credit that you don’t really think about his death until after the movie is over – for the most part you’ll be picking that stray jaw up from the floor with how perfectly (yes, I used the “p” word again) he he hobbles, wobbles, struts, and dances from scene to scene, inserting a devilish cackle here, some smacking lips there, and a “why so serious?” over there. It’s a terrifying, brutal, fascinating, riveting performance – every time he’s onscreen you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.

And now that I’m done ranting about Heath Ledger’s performance for four paragraphs, a couple of minor players should be mentioned – Michael Caine as Alfred is his usual dapper self; in a role that could have been overlooked for how few lines it has, he owns it and puts his stamp on the film like only he can. And then of course there’s Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Bruce’s weapons, supplies, and suit specialist. You don’t get any more charismatic than Freeman, and he can make the most tired script seem fresh and new merely through his soothing voice.

Fortunately for him he’s working with a fantastic script, developed by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, and the siblings have really penned one for the books – there’s quiet moments between two characters, grand speeches about heroes and villains and which one Gotham needs, why the Joker does what he does. “I’m like a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one!” he exclaims gleefully.

Nolan has also made a clear change from “Begins” – whereas Gotham still seemed to be eternally stuck in the middle of the night in his original, and obviously existed in some kind of strange post-Burton futuristic Gotham world, there are plenty of day time scenes here, and most of the sets are perfectly realistic, the kind of pseudo-New York that exists in most every superhero movie. The change actually works, as the realistic setting only amplifies the fear we see upon seeing the Joker perform his acts of terror.

The music is so good it deserves mentioning too – subtle but suited to every situation – when Batman stands atop a building and drops down into the night, swooping his wings out in a bold yet graceful manner, the score will soar along with your nerves and your heart-rate. When the Joker is taunting one of his victims or simply staring at the camera, the score is simply chilling.

Are there flaws with this movie? Probably. There are some cases where’s it’s questionable as to whether or not they needed to include such a large cast (and 2 ½ hours “The Dark Knight” may try some viewers’ patience but it didn’t once test mine), but if you ask me the huge cast and the myriad of story threads only aided how much of a grand epic crime drama this movie was. It’s certain to please some viewers who normally don’t like comic book films, but it’s also got enough for us nerds to happily feast away. The way it juggles its themes and characters is masterful, it’s acted superbly by every single member of its cast, and it’s certainly the best movie of the summer. Probably the best movie of the year. Is it, however one of the best movies of all time, a masterpiece that transcends genres and demographics? It wouldn’t surprise me at all.

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2 Responses to “The Dark Knight (10/10)”

  1. I found Ledger to be so compelling that I didn’t even once think about Nicholson’s Joker or attempt to compare them in my review.

    I’m still mulling the film over as far as what type of legacy it will have. It certainly has stuck with me longer and more deeply than I thought it would when the credits first rolled. I’m not so sure it’s one of the greatest films of all time, but it certainly is a mirror of our time, and the best film of this year thus far. Only time will tell how well it will hold up to future scrutiny. Right now I think we should just enjoy it for what it is: the move event of the year.

    Here’s my review:

    http://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2008/07/23/a-review-of-christopher-nolans-the-dark-knight/

  2. 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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