Friday, July 18, 2008

Review: "The Dark Knight"

Christopher Nolan has created a movie that is darker, graver, and one thousand times better than I ever, in my wildest dreams, could have imagined. It is an incredibly grown-up movie, one boob or f-word away from an R-rating, somewhere near the intersection of drama, action, and horror. "The Dark Knight" is paced with the utmost restraint, revealing one scene after another like sand being poured from glass to glass. No spills, not even a trickle. Each exchange has a purpose, each moment equipped with an arsenal of foreshadowing and suspense. The movie builds upon these moments, growing immensely until it is no longer just a cohesive collection of wonderful scenes (like most good movies are); it is a force. Good movies make us feel a certain way. When a film is well-rounded in its writing, directing, acting, etc., it always leaves us with a sense of closure in the end, even if (like in "Lost in Translation") the ending is ambiguous. Good movies feel like brown paper packages and a simple piece of yarn. Everything is square and complete and clasped into a little bubble of perfection. "The Dark Knight" begins as a good movie and ends as a force. It's like the sky or the sun, something that exists on its own accord. It succeeds in the way a black hole succeeds, and by the end, a story about Bruce Wayne/the Batman becomes an ensemble drama about the people of Gotham City, their relationships, plights, madness, and pain. This is the best movie of the year so far.

The film is lead, without doubt, by the tour de force of Christian Bale. He is a masterful Bruce Wayne, and "The Dark Knight" is, essentially, about the undoing of Batman the hero. Batman is not a hero, but a guardian who must make decisions that nobody else can. It is not his eternal goodness that defines him (Bruce Wayne is human, and no Clark Kent) but his ability to do what must be done, regardless of the consequences. He trusts the people around him, and they trust him. Even if the whole of Gotham does not.

The film is stolen, however, by the late (and painfully missed) Heath Ledger. It is not a question of how he 'captures' the Joker in "The Dark Knight." It's not a question as to whether he's consistent or on his A-game, or what his methods are or whether or not this was the role that killed him. There are no questions. Heath's final completed role is a force, just like the movie, somehow separate from the finished product yet crucial to its success. Heath's Joker is a complete reinvention of the idea of Joker as villain. It is incomparable to Jack Nicholson's Joker, but not because it is inferior or superior in any way. Heath Ledger's Joker is a young man with no plan, no real idea of what's going on aside from a sadistic yearning for destruction and, as Gordon once said, "a taste for the theatrical." While negotiating with mob boss Sal Maroni, the Joker demands a payment of "Half." Half of what, exactly? Nobody knows. Not even the villain himself. The surrounding criminals laugh, assuming the clown means money. It becomes quite clear later on in the film, however, that money, things, and people mean zero to the Joker. The Joker describes himself as something of a dog chasing cars: that if he ever actually caught one he'd never know what to do with it. "Some men just want to watch the world burn," Alfred says. The Joker is an enigmatic character. He speaks his own unique, psychotic language, and he's frightening. He's frightening because of his smile, his laugh, his slithering childhood anecdotes. Because there's nothing in the world that he, himself, is frightened of. Not death, not pain, and definitely not the Batman. In the beginning of the movie, he tells the mob crew to kill Batman, that this will return Gotham to its original state. But the Joker does not want to kill the Batman. The Batman is far too much fun! Some small part of me believes that the Joker merely tells the criminals to kill the masked vigilante so that he can watch each one meet his uncanny demise. Sadistic, I know. This is the villain of "The Dark Knight."

Another stand-out performance in "The Dark Knight" comes from Aaron Eckhart, an actor who is good at being handsome and charming (like in "Thank You for Smoking"), but is not necessarily known for his dramatic character work. The transformation of Harvey Dent is, perhaps, one of the most enticing character transformations I've ever seen in a movie. He begins as the classic Eckhart gem: tall, masculine, devastatingly handsome, clever in the way that Alan Shore is clever. It is then revealed, however, that Harvey Dent is more than just a ballsy District Attorney. He brings down half the mob (with only a little help from Batman), and suddenly he's Gotham's 'White Knight,' a real hero with a face and an identity. He's also got Rachel Dawes on his arm (the new and improved Miss Dawes, via Maggie Gyllenhaal), a development that causes Bruce to wonder if, perhaps, the bat suit has unwillingly botched his chances. He throws a fundraiser for Dent, in hopes that the DA's heroic tendencies will eliminate the need for Batman in Gotham. His hopes are thwarted, however, with the Joker shows up, clad with cronies, knives, and semi-automatics. Instead of leaving the saving to Harvey Dent, Bruce is forced to incapacitate the handsome DA, hide him in a closet, and stuff the villains himself. I will not mention anymore on the transformation of Harvey. None of it will be given proper justice in this article. You will have to see it for yourself.

"The Dark Knight" is a movie that does not define a genre, but redefines it completely. Most people will say that it is not only a good superhero movie, but a good movie. I've already mentioned this. It is a good movie. It's a great movie. I'm seeing nominations in almost all of the Academy's major awards (maybe even a sure win, posthumously, for Mr. Ledger), including Best Picture of the Year. But, as I also said before, this is not merely a good movie. It's an experience. It changed the way I look at, not only superhero movies, but the state of cinema as an industry. That art can exist in the form of a superhero movie, and that wonderful cinema can be enjoyed by all audiences, not just the frequenters of an art house.

I know I've talked about the three major performances, and that's about it, but for whatever reason, this is what I was compelled to focus on. Of course, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox and Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth are perfectly cast, intelligent overcast to an otherwise young and chaotic air. Maggie Gyllenhaal, as previously mentioned, brings a sultry sense of empowerment to the role of Rachel Dawes. In an article with the AV Club, she talked briefly about maintaining that empowerment in a film dominated by men. Her comments were quite refreshing, as the role of women in male superhero movies is rarely touched upon, and it's actually very interesting. The CGI goes without saying: sleek, dark, haunting. This is the kind of movie that makes me glad I love movies in the first place. Because I can sit here and think about "The Dark Knight" for hours on end--about its precision, terror, performances, writing, and scary originality of vision. Christian Bale says he'll do a third movie, but only sans Robin and if Nolan is on board. I certainly hope that it's cocked and locked, because it doesn't get much better than "The Dark Knight."

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