Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Knight

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
Running Time: 152 min.
Rating: PG-13

*** 1/2 (out of ****)

So, finally, here we are. The years of ongoing speculation. The restless anticipation. The viral marketing. The endless hype. The off screen tragedy. And I’m actually a little shocked. The Dark Knight is a great, wildly ambitious film, easily one of 2008's best and by far the best film in the series but I don't think it's a masterpiece and it did fall short of my expectations, which is almost understandable when they're this high. Unlike many, I had some minor issues with it. This is probably going to be the most negative review you read for the film and that I'm still highly praising it should give you an idea just how good it is, as if you didn't know already.

Going in I’ve heard his film compared to such epic crime dramas as The Godfather Part II and Heat and that's a revealing point. At times writer/director Christopher Nolan really does seem to believe he's re-making those films rather than giving us a summer action popcorn movie and I found myself I wondering if such a treatment was almost too much for this kind of material. In crafting a Batman drenched in gritty realism, he's made a film so deep, textured and intelligent that it's almost intimidating. It's so ambitious and he jams so much in that I actually worried the movie would slip away from him and co-writers Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer in the third act. It didn't, but that doesn't mean it couldn't have used a trim. However, if that's is the only price I have to pay to get a cinematic superhero rendering of this quality, so be it.

If we hit the low point in goofy camp with Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin we've now gone as far as possible in the other direction and Nolan’s pitch-black vision has been pushed to the limit. I don't even know where we can go from here. Even if we could argue all day whether the film is overhyped, there's one aspect of this film that surely isn't as an actor leaves us with the ultimate gift. Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker is not only as great as you've heard, it's better, and just about the most frighteningly display off villainy you'll ever witness on screen. But there's actually another supporting performance that's hasn't garnered as much attention that almost equals it in emotional complexity.

No need to worry about spoilers here. The film’s plot is so multi-layered I’m not sure I could give it away if I tried and you could have filled the entire Batman series with the plots and sub-plots contained within it. And Shakespearean tragedies don't have this much going on emotionally. The sequel picks up where Batman Begins left off with mob crime in Gotham City escalating even further under Lieutenant Jim Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) watch, except a new criminal mastermind by the name of The Joker (Ledger) is cutting in and creatively robbing the mob of its earnings. His first appearance, an electrifyingly bank robbery unlike any you could hope to see on film, provides a strong, unforgettable introduction to the psychotic villain.

There's also a “White Knight” whose stormed into Gotham City, district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a fair and honest legal crusader who wants to rid the streets of low-lives so there’s no longer a need for Batman (Christian Bale). He’s also dating and working alongside Bruce Wayne’s longtime love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over for Katie Holmes). Rachel wrestles with her feelings for the new D.A. while still obviously carrying a torch for Bruce. She’ll have a choice to make. Meanwhile, Bruce struggles with his identity as Batman like never before, wondering whether his presence is actually helping the city, or burying it deeper in crime.
The film creates an awesome parallel between Joker and Batman, much more alike than different. “You Complete Me!” he tells the Caped Crusader. And he’s right. He does. Gotham City truly isn’t big enough for these two and you’d figure this could only end one way. Nolan has other, bigger plans though. Most of the first hour plays like a mob movie and a lot of time (maybe too much) is devoted to build-up. But the real satisfaction comes from Ledger’s Joker bubbling just below Gotham’s underbelly waiting to explode.

Played as a sick hybrid of Clockwork Orange’s Alex and Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols, Joker bares no resemblance to any villain previously committed to film. It's truly the definitive portrayal of this iconic character, with Ledger making Cesar Romero and even Jack Nicholson look like clowns hired for a children's birthday party. Every moment he's on screen is pure terror and Nolan is smart enough to know the right dose of screen time to give him. Not too much, not too little. Just the perfect amount. There really aren't words to describe what he does and to say it's the greatest performance contained in a superhero movie is an insult because this is no superhero movie, nor does it feel like a "performance." Heath Ledger becomes The Joker. He inhabits him. Nothing could have possibly prepared me for what he does in this role and if I didn't know who was playing the part beforehand I would have never guessed it was him. He's physically unrecognizable. What surprised me most was how funny he was. Not haha funny, but scary-funny. Like a serial killer he storms into Gotham without reason or warning and no backstory is required or wanted because Ledger provides everything. It stays with you. A posthumous Oscar nomination isn't just a possibility, it's guaranteed. I'm skeptical whether the Academy would have considered nominating him unless he died, but that speaks for my lack of faith in them and their bias against the genre, not Ledger's work, which deserves to win. Who knew he had this in him?

When I first heard Ledger was cast in the role I wasn’t thrilled, mainly because of my unfamiliarity with his previous work, but he’s proven me, and any other doubters, completely wrong here. When the final credits rolled I felt immense sadness wondering about all the future great performances we’d be missing out on. But had he not tragically passed away and just retired on this role, his legacy would still be secure. That's how spellbinding this is.

Aside from Ledger’s Joker, Nolan does a good job spreading the wealth among the various supporting characters, but I wouldn’t expect anything less considering the film’s gargantuan running length. Michael Caine’s Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, who both had little more than cameo roles in Batman Begins, get much more screen time and are fleshed out with greater importance. Both contribute in big ways to the story and it’s a welcome change. Even more welcome is the contribution of Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Gordon this time around as he’s given a superb story arc that deepens and complicates his relationship with Batman as well as the citizens of Gotham. Oldman slides into the role effortlessly and I couldn't believe how important the part was. It's essentially treated as being on the same level as Batman. No one could ever accuse Nolan of skimping on character development.

Bale’s performance as Batman, truthfully, I found to be just okay. I thought his solid work in the previous film was slightly overpraised and don't even get me started on that silly voice Nolan has Bale use when he's behind the mask. I was always amazed that no one has a problem with that. Bruce Wayne for the first time in the series’ history really comes off as arrogant and I think that's intentional because the movie is working in shades of gray. The two morally compromised characters in the film are actually more likable than he is. It's easily the darkest rendering of the character yet, but it does serve the many themes of the story well.

Part of why Bruce Wayne is so hard to root for may be because he isn’t the real hero of the film. Harvey Dent is. Its no wonder he is since Aaron Eckhart gives a performance that’s only a few notches below Ledger’s, suggesting a depth and complexity to Gotham’s righteous district attorney that couldn’t have been on the page. I wasn’t only rooting for this guy, but felt deep sympathy for him as he tries to do the right thing only to unintentionally dig himself deeper by the second.
I know it’s a staple in the comics and I’ll be ripped apart for saying this, but the two-sided coin came off as a little cheesy to me. In a film so grounded in gritty realism it seemed cartoonish having this D.A. go around flipping a giant coin to make a decision every second. I know fans would have been enraged but if it were excised I wouldn't complain. Nolan did such a good job depicting the theme of chance within the story that seeing it seems almost unnecessary.

The visual treatment of Two-Face is spectacular and a giant step up from Tommy Lee Jones’ embarrassing makeup job in Batman Forever. This version looks like he was ripped directly from the comics and that was definitely the right way to go. I fully expected Eckhart to blow Jones' cackling cartoon Two-Face out of the water but Harvey Dent is a big, big deal in this movie and the journey Nolan takes him on is fascinating. He’s a victim of circumstance and Eckhart acts his heart out to sell the transformation even if the script overreaches a little with him toward the end. Still, of all the characters in the film, I probably cared about him the most.

Not surprisingly, Maggie Gyllenhaal does a solid job as Rachel and brings more nuance to the role than Katie Holmes did in the previous film. She's an actress that brings something interesting to every role she plays and for the most part this is no exception, but something did seem to be just a little off. For instance, take the scene you’ve seen in the trailers with The Joker crashing the dinner party and threatening Rachel. It’s supposed to be frightening and intense but because Maggie plays the character as a fiercely independent and feisty woman who can't be intimidated I wasn’t exactly afraid for her. As much as it pains me to admit this, something Katie Holmes was always good at was conveying innocence and Rachel could have used a little more of that here. Since the rest of the movie is drenched in gloom and doom that juxtaposition may have been intriguing. But Gyllenhaal brings other attributes to the role that Holmes could only dream of. For one, she's actually likable. She's also much more believable as a hardened attorney and has excellent chemistry with Eckhart. Her chemistry with Bale is iffier but I think that has more to do with Bale's darker, aloof rendering of Bruce Wayne than Gyllenhaal's performance. I didn't get exactly what I was hoping with Rachel Dawes and despite the strides made here it's still Nolan's least developed and most poorly written character. No actress would be winning awards for this role.

Despite everything Nolan’s trying to do here the field doesn’t start to get too crowded until the last 45 minutes or so. There was a point the film could have ended but Nolan just keeps going and takes Two-Face’s story further than it should have gone without completing the Joker’s. As I loved Eckhart’s work it there’s no need to jam that much in when another film is going to be made that could easily cover that territory. Eckhart's performance as Harvey Dent was so compelling I almost didn't want to see him turn into Two-Face and part of me wondered the direction the story could take if he didn't because let's face it: His transformation is a big stretch. This film deals with some heady issues like the possibility of evil and corruption, national security, the burden of personal responsibility and the need for heroes, or rather if they really even exist. The final twist of the knife is not only surprising, but thought provoking and will leave you in a state of deep contemplation. How many times could you say that about a superhero film?  A major story thread is left dangling in the most literal sense and there's no way it could ever possibly be resolved. Perhaps fittingly.

The film runs 2 and a half hours but I can't say I thought it flew by like everyone else did. This is more a crime drama than an action movie and it requires your complete attention. There were a few points during the film where I was even getting restless and wondered why certain scenes (specifically in the first and last hours) weren’t left on the cutting room floor. The actions sequences were exciting and thankfully didn't rely on an overabundance of CGI, or at least didn't look like they did.

Mostly due to the viewing conditions (poor air conditioning and screaming kids) this was a grueling experience, rather than a thrilling one and I didn't come rushing out of the theater in a state of cosmic euphoria and excitement. In fact, it took me some time to completely gather my thoughts on the film and I had even written a review before this one that I had scrapped. Even now my thoughts on the movie are still very raw and it still probably needs a lot of time to settle. I was also unprepared for just how much the excessive hype would effect me going in. It really took a toll. "Let's get it over with" isn't the most desirable attitude to approach a film with but unfortunately the media put me in that position. I can tell myself all of these factors don't make a difference, but who am I kidding? It'll be interesting to see when I re-watch it on DVD whether the minor problems I had with it iron out or get worse.
I just recently ranked the Batman films and I wouldn't even dare place this because I don’t consider it a Batman film. Going in I didn't expect something more akin to Zodiac or There Will Be Blood than any superhero movie and I'm curious to see how this does in the coming weeks because this doesn't fit the textbook definition of mainstream, crowd-pleasing summer entertainment. I can't help but think something may have been slightly lost in taking this approach, as if the superhero movie was robbed of its knife point. But I'll bite the bullet because it's too cinematically challenging to do otherwise. I don't know if it's a masterpiece as a whole, but many parts of it (specifically the work of Ledger and Eckhart) could qualify as such.

The friend I saw it with agreed with the general consensus that it was a masterpiece and the greatest superhero film ever made. Then I asked him if he had fun. He danced around the question, talking about the performances and the visuals until he finally told me it didn’t have to be fun, just faithful to Bob Kane’s original vision of the character. It became clear right then and there that the rules have changed. That we finally got what we've been waiting for and found out what would happen if all our previously held expectations of these kinds of movies were just thrown away. Only the bat suit and clown make-up remain. It's Batman, envisioned by Christopher Nolan. The Dark Knight changed the landscape and, for better or worse, we won't be able to view superhero movies the same way again.


JD said...

This is the review I have been waiting for. Trust me, I love what you had to say because it is Eckhart's film too.
He is a side of Bruce that Bruce can never be, he has his origin here whereas Bruce has his tale told in Begins and I feel that works to Bale's benefit here.
Yeah, his Batman voice is awkard, but I didn't mind it.
Harvey Dent is a true Tragic figure here.

The Joker-- well this will always be the Joker to me.
Excellent review!!
I Want to see this again and again.

Ben K said...

Fantastic review Jeremy! Thiis for me is the movie to beat for 2008. Sorry that you got stuck in a theater where everything wrong with it was emphasized to an excrutiating degree. Sounds like when I saw "WALL*E," but there was air condiditoning.

It may not be perfect. But it is as close to perfect as you can get for a summer movie.

Patrick Roberts said...

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