Thursday, July 24, 2008

Film Review: The Dark Knight

Carmine Infantino, a veteran superhero cartoonist and the one-time editorial director and publisher of DC Comics, has observed that kids like superheroes to be played very straight; there's little or no room for humor. However, kids these days come in all ages. Adult superhero fans like the material somber and serious (large helpings of ultraviolence is a big plus), and they're especially impressed when it comes with literary pretensions as well. The Dark Knight is the perfect superhero movie for this audience: it's moody and atmospheric, it's extraordinarily violent, and it has absolutely no sense of humor about itself. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films had their self-mocking aspects, and the X-Men films had the droll presence of Ian McKellen as the villain, but apart from some minor ironic touches courtesy of the late Heath Ledger, there's nothing to laugh at in The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan, the director and the principal writer, seems to go out of his way to make sure of it; if the story's horrifying touches and turns don't shock everyone into submission, the incessant explosions and shattering glass are there to do the trick. He's evolved into perhaps the most bullying and self-important filmmaker since Oliver Stone.

It's a shame, partly because the recent spate of superhero movies has favored more measured storytelling styles. There are thrills galore in these films, but the action and effects sequences are generally balanced with quieter scenes. This is true of Sam Raimi in the Spider-Man films, Bryan Singer with the first two X-Men films and Superman Returns, and even Nolan himself in The Dark Knight's franchise predecessor Batman Begins. The audience is allowed to get their bearings in between action setpieces. The Dark Knight has its quieter scenes, but they're generally not long enough for one to recover from the rollercoaster rides that precede them. And the constant boom-booms on the soundtrack, courtesy of composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, keep one tensed up. The film's rhythms lack the proper ebb and flow necessary for enjoyment.

There are other reasons for wishing the mayhem had been toned down. The Dark Knight actually has a decent story going on underneath all the noise; the plotting is probably the best we've seen in any of the superhero comics adaptations. Batman (Christian Bale) and his police department ally Jim Gordon, played by Gary Oldman, are making significant headway in their efforts to shut down organized crime in Gotham City. Towards this end, they join forces with straight-arrow district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), an inspiring white knight figure who offers the hope of ending the city's ethos of corruption once and for all. But the disruptions in the city's mob operations open the door for the Joker (Heath Ledger), a psychotic criminal mastermind, to take over. The Joker's larger goal is to take the effort to reassert the ideals of justice and order and throw them back in Batman, Gordon, and Dent's collective face. This premise sets the stage for a number of intricate twists and turns, which ably build the story to a movingly tragic ending for all three of its heroes.

Nolan gets strong work out of his actors. Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Maggie Gyllenhaal all bring a touch of class to their small roles, and Christian Bale gives an effectively stoic and driven presence to Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne. Eckhart and Oldman have more complex parts. Eckhart has the clean-cut, square-jawed look to go with Dent's idealism, and it serves as an effective counterpoint to the character's descent into rage as he suffers greater and greater personal losses at the Joker's hands. Oldman's part is less showy, but he handles it wonderfully. The film's portrayal of the character is heavily influenced by the depiction in Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's 1987 graphic novel Batman: Year One, and one can easily imagine Miller and Mazzucchelli looking at the screen in astonishment at how completely Oldman embodies their interpretation. His Gordon is a world-weary man, torn by his commitment to justice and the compromises he has live with to achieve it. The script never dramatizes his internal conflicts, but one can sense them in every move he makes.

The stand-out, of course, is Heath Ledger as the Joker. As everyone knows, this was Ledger's last completed performance before dying from a prescription drug overdose. There have been suggestions in the press that Ledger got so far into this character that it led to the depression problems that contributed to his death. David Denby of the New Yorker, who should know better, has echoed this nonsense, writing that the performance leaves you wondering "how badly he messed himself up in order to play the role." As the saying goes, don't believe the hype--at least, not all of it. The performance is terrific, but I don't buy for a minute that Ledger drove himself insane in order to give it. It's a carefully crafted piece of work, with a strong sense of dynamics. Ledger affects a high, nasal voice and a shambling walk, with occasional twitchiness and moments of clumsiness. Apart from the fright make-up, everything about the character seems to say, "Why would anyone be scared of me?" But the character moves lightning fast when he attacks--he wields a knife with an unnerving ease--and the contrast makes him all the more effective as a threat. One's sense of how deceptively dangerous the character is gives a suspenseful edge to some scenes, such as one when, while briefly in police custody, the Joker taunts a cop with the number of police officers he's killed. You can see why the cop isn't the least bit worried when he moves to beat the crap out of him, and you feel the dread that comes with knowing this cop has no idea what he's in for. Ledger pulls off creepier effects as well; his Joker is very fond of bombs and, in one scene, a rocket-launcher, and he reacts to the explosions with a sheepish movement that says, "Well, not bad, but maybe next time." And the scene of him exiting a hospital in nurse's drag has to be seen to be believed--he's Chaplin's Little Tramp as a transvestite mad bomber. Ledger may very well turn out to be his generation's James Dean, another brilliant young actor who died just as his career was taking off. The comparison is deserved.

I wish Nolan had spent more time clarifying the details of the Joker's various plots. The bank heist that opens the film is worked out like a Rube Goldberg machine. Showing just how the Joker orchestrated the kidnappings and the jail escape that end the second act would be fascinating, as one doesn't see how he could have planned them. And perhaps Nolan spends too much time outlining the mob's bank and money laundering schemes at the beginning; the foray to Hong Kong, while breathtaking to look at in some shots, seems unnecessary, and the sequence's conclusion is beyond belief. I also could have done without the order vs. chaos allegorical malarkey that hangs over the Joker's war wih Batman, Gordon, and Dent.

It seems on some level that Nolan doesn't want to admit he's essentially making a franchise summer action movie for teenagers. He comes up with a well-structured urban crime drama, has the production handsomely put together by his artisans (cinematographer Wally Pfister does a particularly spectacular job), and gets excellent performances out of his cast. He's doing the work of a good filmmaker. But the central demand to produce a cinematic roller-coaster ride for kids on summer vacation rears its ugly head, and he overcompensates by throwing in a new explosion every few minutes. The Dark Knight may play more effectively on the small screen than the big one (this is true of Paul Greengrass's Jason Bourne sequels). At least then I can turn down the volume when no one's talking.

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