Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight

The film ended, and the credits started rolling. People started milling about, gathering their things and leaving the theater. The names of the cast and crew slid past my view as I was pummeled by a repetition of the movie’s sweeping, brooding score. Mrs. Speculator nudged me to see if I was okay, and I told her I was listening to the music. But it wasn’t true—I was regathering my senses, trying to pull my thoughts together, digesting the impressions of what I had just seen. Readers, to put it mildly, I was completely blown away and I wanted to go back in line, get another ticket, and see it all again.

But you know, for the first hour or so, I was trying to figure out what the hype was all about. The movie I was seeing was a good movie but not a spectacular one. All the set-up elements were there: re-introducing the hero and other characters repeated from the first movie, introducing the new villain with a daring bank robbery, introducing the new district attorney, and then proceeding with a fairly standard plot regarding the mobs of Gotham City reeling from the effects of a costumed crusader thwarting their plans. Heath Ledger was a little creepy as the Joker, and his introduction served to show how smart he was as well as how unpredictable he could be. Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent is amiable enough, his reputation as a crusader more apparent from other people describing him than from any actions we see on his part (though his one courtroom scene packs some wallop). Christian Bale, almost an after-thought in some ways, gets what feels like very little screen time beside the two new stars, but in fact, he stands back and lets them dominate their scenes. Bale’s (and screenwriter/director Christopher Nolan’s) Bruce Wayne is happy to be in the background, using his money and influence to pull strings, not necessarily to be the spokesperson for his charities or his business. This is in keeping with the way he is usually written in the comics, but not so much in the way he has generally been portrayed in previous movies.

Things really get moving when the Joker blackmails the city: either Batman unveils himself or people are going to start dying. And as proof of his intent, he murders the police commissioner and a judge, using very subtle planning, again demonstrating his intelligence. The threat shines a bright light on Batman and how Gotham feels about him: they are willing to put up with a vigilante who might be acting beyond the law so long as he is performing a perceived good, but when their lives are on the line, they are willing to give him up to save themselves. At last we get to see the real, canny madness behind the Joker—forcing people to face themselves and challenge their preconceptions, using their indecision to advance his own world-view of even more chaos. And then the movie breaks open, becoming about not just inherent good and evil, but about whether or not chaos and/or order are inherent. Aligned for the forces of order are the police, the judicial system and Batman, and even the mobs who deep down really want order themselves, just an order they control. Opposing them is one man, the Joker, and he slowly brings not just the city but its inhabitants to their knees. No one can predict or figure out what the Joker is going to do, and thus no one is safe, and every citizen of Gotham feels that fear.
There is no doubt that what makes this movie so spectacular is the Joker. I’m pretty sure that you could read articles for days about Heath Ledger’s performance, and I won’t deny it is breathtaking and hypnotic. He really should be nominated for an Oscar for this performance. It is a masterpiece of method acting, down to the repugnant noisy repetitious licking of his lips. His eventual soliloquies in the local jail and in his final battle against Batman are eerie, stark, and all the more chilling for how logical their arguments. And while Ledger delivers them perfectly, a ton of credit must go to Christopher Nolan, the man who directed those scenes and wrote them (along with David Goyer) in the first place. Without Nolan’s vision of Gotham as the battleground between chaos and order, without the context he provides, Ledger’s performance, while great, would be rudderless. The Joker is perhaps the most terrifying character I have ever seen on-screen: he is brilliantly smart, masterminding and pulling off complex plots with the finesse of a battlefield tactician, and he is utterly unpredictable.

And then, after Harvey Dent loses part of his face to a fire, becoming Two-Face, one of the most powerful scenes in the movie—his confrontation with Joker—takes place. Joker turns the bastion of order into an agent of chaos with agonizing logic. After the fire, Dent’s soul is not lost, but he is in emotional and physical agony. The Joker does what he does, turning Dent’s fears and anger in on him until there is no escape, and Two-Face explodes, shaping his own relationship with chaos. The acting in that scene is stunning on the part of both actors, but again, it is the direction and writing that get us to that point in the first place.

But I am really saving my last and hopefully best praise for the element of the movie that, I think, pushes it that last bit into becoming iconic: the score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer. While the film is brilliant in its writing, acting and direction, the score should be long studied as the quintessential mood-setter and emotional undercurrent for drama. I don’t know enough about music to talk about it in detail, but I can say that echoes of it still rebound within my head, alternating between the half-familiar new Batman theme and the strident discord of the Joker’s theme. If the movie fails to win an Oscar in any category, it will succeed in this category. Nothing musical has moved me in a movie like this since the first moved me in a movie like this since the first Star Wars, but even that pales in comparison because the score didn’t need to be complex but instead accurately reflect the primary characters and their themes. The music for The Dark Knight, on the other hand, has a wider range of emotion to reflect and amplify, and in the deft hands of its composers, it takes on a life of its own becoming one of the principle characters of the film.

At last, a groundbreaking movie that takes the foundation of superhero stories and transports the entire concept into something much much greater. This is not just a really good comic book movie; The Dark Knight takes its viewers to themes and thought that they are probably unfamiliar with. It is simply a great movie, for any category. It transcends its genre and demands conversation and repeated viewing. It is a classic movie and one that fans of movies will be talkign about for a long long time.

1 comment:

  1. As I read the various comic books set in Gotham, it's clear that in the best of them Gotham itself is a character. I believe that is an intention of Bob Kane. The city breathes and mourns and suffers and readers have a sense that if they were dropped in the middle of Gotham it would somehow seem familiar. We finally get to see Gotham as a character on the big screen in this new movie and I for one and grateful. This is also the first superhero movie that gets down on street level and shows the true consequenses of the explosions and battles. A superhero movie is has finally become a truly visceral experiance and not just comic book violence where it's implied everyone is saved without a scratch. Now, to see it again on IMAX this time!