[17 July 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Duality is the nature of man. We all have good and evil inside us. Which side we choose to embrace earmarks our very existence, putting us on a path toward redemption…or damnation. Christopher Nolan understands the very humanness of his characters. From Memento‘s Leonard to The Prestige‘s dueling magicians, the split personality within all of us has become this filmmaker’s aesthetic playground. When he first revamped the Batman mythos for his 2005 blockbuster, fans were worried that future installments in the series would be more psychological than spectacle. Add to that the death of his choice for The Joker, and The Dark Knight seemed destined to succumb to ridiculous expectations. Instead, it instantly becomes one of the best films of 2008, if not the current reigning champion at the top.
Gotham, still under the crush of rampant corruption and uncontrollable crime, maintains Batman as their shimmering ray of hope. But now the Caped Crusader has a powerful ally in elected office. Harvey Dent, the new DA (and romantic paramour of Bruce Wayne ex Rachel Dawes) may not appreciate the superhero’s tactics, but like Inspector Gordon, he will tolerate the effect the symbol has on the lawless. After a daring bank robbery in which a large sum of laundered money goes missing, Gotham’s avengers believe they can put the mob away for good. Desperate to keep this from happening, the mafia turns to two individuals to protect their interests. One is a Hong Kong businessman who is convinced he can retrieve and hide the cash. And the second is someone called The Joker, a facially scarred madman who has an easy solution to the problem. Kill the Batman.
Like a symphony where every note is exactly where it needs to be, or a painting without a brushstroke wasted, The Dark Knight is an unabashed, unashamedly great film. It’s a flawless amalgamation of moviemaker and material, Christopher Nolan’s calling card for future cinematic superstardom. All those comparisons to The Godfather and Heat are well earned. This is popcorn buzz built for the complex mind, a motion picture monolith constructed out of carefully placed plot and performance pieces. At two and a half hours, it’s epic in approach. But as the battle between men who are each facing their own inner demons and unsettled sources of personal discontent, its subtext and scope are unmatched. This is Coppola at his crime opera peak, Kubrick coming to the comic book and banging on all meticulously crafted cylinders.
While Heath Ledger will get all the print space (and rightfully so - more on this in a moment), it needs to be said that the biggest character arc belongs to Aaron Eckhart as future Two-Face Harvey Dent. When we are first introduced to the maverick DA, we wonder if the pretty boy blond with the pearly white wholesomeness can find the depth to delve into what makes this public official potentially lethal. When the change-over occurs, we are given plenty of time to recognize how desperate he will become. Aside from the outstanding make-up job which renders Dent a zombified version of his former self, Eckhart turns his rage into a pinpoint laser, focusing it on the one person he blames for turning him into a freak.
And speaking of villainous oddities, Ledger is indeed majestic as Gotham’s new threat. Gritty and grotesque, his face caked with rancid clown make-up, this is a Joker as spoiled fruit, a disseminator of destruction using his unusual looks to cover-up a serial killer’s aura. There is a careful cadence in the way Ledger speaks, an inferred thoughtfulness that contradicts his lax murdering ruthlessness. It’s easy to see why critics are calling for some manner of Oscar recognition. In a realm where evil is typically expressed via glorified grandstanding, this villain merely gloats as he gets down to business. When bounced off Eckhart and Christian Bale, Ledger creates a beautiful ménage a menace.
As usual, our hero brings his A-game, a complicated confusion that really humanizes the Batman. If he’s done nothing else, Nolan has expertly explained why one man with the world’s wealth at his fingertips would turn to a life of vigilante justice - and why he would continue on once he fulfilled his payback purpose. The motivation in The Dark Knight is even more multifaceted, involving a series of obligations, duties, threats, promises, protections, and consequences. Nolan never gives the character a break, and Bale brings the proper perspective to all aspects of the role. There is never a false note in any of the movie’s many twists and turns, and its all thanks to a capable cast (Michael Caine’s Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox included), as well as the man behind the lens.
It doesn’t take much to commend Christopher Nolan for what he accomplishes here. Not just for taking a pen and ink world and realizing it within the crime and punishment confines of our own. Not just for having the vision (and commercial clout) to deliver a 150 minute dissertation on the true nature of law and order, but also for taking the bigger risks within the material. This is not the Joker’s origin story. There are no vats of chemicals or mob boss vendettas to work out. This is not a gadget heavy stream of criminality with gags whizzing by as frequently as bullets. Instead, Nolan is out to make a kind of neo-noir, albeit one that avoids the shady ladies and half-drawn blinds that usually exemplify the genre.
As with any outsized vision, Nolan threatens to let everything spiral out of control. Yet just when we think his approach can’t get any broader, he brings things in close, awarding Bale and Ledger one-on-one’s that provide the heady buzz of a finely aged bottle of whisky. Like the great filmmakers he matches against, Nolan knows that there’s as much power in the little moments as the large. The Dark Knight has many of these narrative kiss-offs, sequences where characters can practically taste the bitterness on each other’s breath. It’s these incredible juxtapositions - the skyscrapers of Gotham stand-in Chicago vs. the claustrophobia of Wayne’s junkyard lair, the optimism of Dent’s initial drive vs. the dread in his need for revenge - that engages and overwhelms us. It’s what allows this film to transcend the summer season to become a stand alone classic.
Indeed, The Dark Knight is one of those experiences that, decades from now, will be viewed with the kind of crazed critical and cult revelry that meets such operatic opuses as Scarface or Goodfellas. It bests the previous incarnation of the Batman character because it never takes the substance as slapstick or cartoon. It guarantees that, whatever Christopher Nolan wants to do next, he will have the opportunity (and budget) to do so. And it will stand as one of the finest examples of human quid pro quo ever put on film. Everyone has two sides to their personality - the one they show to the world and the one they slyly keep to themselves. In the case of this amazing movie, there is only discernible façade…and it’s one of greatness.