Monday, December 15, 2008

A Second Look: The Dark Knight


Let’s take a trip back in time to the morning of Friday July 18, 2008 when I arrived at the theater to see The Dark Knight. It just wasn’t my week. Besides being sick, my mind just wasn't into going to the movies. And a film I had been looking forward to for years all of the sudden became a chore for me to go to because I’d been so burnt out by the hype surrounding it. I just wanted to get it out of the way and over with. Fair or not, I said that anything less than the greatest motion picture I’ve ever seen would be considered a huge disappointment. As a result, I was disappointed.

Due to circumstances beyond my control there was only one theater I could see it at and I knew in the back of my mind this venue was bad news. And bad news it was. It was hot, uncomfortable, had poor projection and a few screaming infants thrown for good measure. How much of that contributed to this rather infamous review I’ll never know but I do know that I left the theater that day dejected from a grueling experience. I was definitely more exhausted than enthralled.

That’s not to say I didn’t think The Dark Knight was great. I did, but just didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as everyone else seemed to. I debated whether to even review it because the circumstances surrounding the screening were so awful and I was so rushed that week that there was really no time to let the film sink in. But I did review it, and despite patch areas of massive praise (specifically for Ledger’s performance and the overall ambition of the project) I essentially considered it a letdown, despite awarding it three and a half stars. My problems with the film were as follows:

-I thought Bale’s performance was merely adequate and couldn’t stand his deep, raspy “Batman voice.”
-There was too much story build-up and mob nonsense at the front end of the film.

-The character of Rachel Dawes was once again an underwritten weak link. While I did think Maggie Gylennhaal fared better than Katie Holmes in the role, it was a far narrower victory than I had anticipated.
-The final act (that mostly involved Two-Face) dragged out and could have easily been saved for another installment. Nolan was jamming too much in.
-The movie wasn’t “fun.”

It was time to write this off as yet another case of me seeing a different film than everyone else. It’s happened before (Knocked Up and No Country For Old Men come to mind as obvious examples) but because of my anticipation level this one really stung. If you had told me before I saw it that it would go on to become the second highest grossing film of all-time I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised, but after that first viewing I would have been. I left the theater certain it wouldn’t do as well as expected because it wasn’t your typical mainstream summer popcorn movie and the casual moviegoing public would find it too dark and inaccessible. When it did not only met expectations financially but far surpassed them I was shocked and then even more depressed because in addition to being disappointed by the film, I was wrong as well. It always sucks to be wrong.

So, for the next week or so I just hung my head in frustration as the rest of the country seemingly joined in a giant Dark Knight celebration. Then something strange happened. Over the next couple of weeks all I wanted to talk about with anyone was the film. I’ve joked that the two things I found most interesting to talk about in 2008 were The Dark Knight and John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate- In that order. I found myself talking about the film with strangers and then talking about far longer with people I know.
Whatever my feelings were on it, flaws and all, I couldn’t stop analyzing what I liked and didn’t, examining all the surprising angles Christopher Nolan approached the material with. The most fun I had was speculating with people which franchises could be “Nolanized.” And the more I talked about it the more I started to realize that my opinion of the film about a month after I saw it was substantially different than when I exited the theater on July 18th. With most movies this year it was “one and done.” I’d see it and when it was over I wouldn’t think about it again. But it never left my mind and even when I was attempting to review other films I just wanted to continue reviewing that one. Don’t believe me, just get a load of this:

“Speaking of The Dark Knight, I don’t think it helped that I saw that film before this. While wildly different in tone and approach, both are based on comic characters and a comparison makes this movie look especially ridiculous, almost as if it’s from a bygone era: pre-July '08.” -From my review of Speed Racer (9/20/08)

“The Dark Knight wasn’t without its flaws also but the big difference is that they were so interesting you could analyze them for years.”

-From my review of Iron Man (10/6/08)

“This isn’t There Will Be Blood or The Dark Knight. There are no benefits to hearing in excruciating detail how it was made.”
-Commenting on the DVD’s overabundance of special features in my review of You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (10/13/08)

“I took some heat for giving (The Dark Knight) “only” three and a half stars and saying it didn’t meet expectations. But no film could have met those incredible expectations and in trying it came closer than it had any right to.”
-From my review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (10/20/08)

“Would everyone be praising The Dark Knight as much as they have if it ended with Brandon Routh’s Clark Kent sharing a drink and some laughs with Commissioner Gordon in a bar?” -From my review of The Incredible Hulk (10/4/08)

“It’s also more involving than the two other superhero outings this summer, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk (The Dark Knight shouldn't be considered a superhero film).”
-From my review of Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (11/18/08)

“This summer, The Dark Knight proved you can have your cake and eat it too, entertaining the masses while still delivering a story of substance.”
-From my review of Hancock (12/1/08)

“This is The Dark Knight of hot and sour soup.”
-Me, after ordering Chinese takeout a couple of weeks ago.

This had cast a shadow so large in my mind that no other film released during the year could escape from under it. I didn’t realize just how large it was until recently. It was clear that the movie had a bigger impact on me than I had originally thought, which is why I couldn’t wait to watch it a second time to see how much my opinion would differ, if at all. It’s interesting to note that I rushed out to purchase the DVD immediately (how lacking it is in special features is a rant for another time). So did everyone else. Except I rarely buy movies and have an unbelievably wimpy collection for someone who constantly writes and talks about films. I basically never buy and just rent because while there are many movies I love, there are very few I have any interest in watching again. You’d be surprised how few films hold up well on second and third viewings. It’s a tough test.

My second viewing of The Dark Knight was a strange experience, and provided the realization that I retained even less of it in the theater than I had thought. As a result, the second viewing turned into another first one and I had to watch it a third time, which kind of became the second, if that makes any sense at all. The one problem I expected to get worse, or at best just simply not improve, was Bale’s performance, but I was surprised to discover how little his Batman voice bothered me the second time around. It was just there and I didn’t think much of it. I will say that I believed Bale created two separate persona here and actually could see how those close to Bruce Wayne wouldn’t have a clue that he’s Batman. Earlier, I had considered his portrayal of Bruce Wayne to be “arrogant” but was taken aback to find myself rooting for him more than I had before.

I still found the plot a little dense and the Rachel character underdeveloped, but the film didn’t drag out like it did for me before. Just the opposite. That third act, which felt tacked on initially flowed much better and the running time flew by. I was transfixed the entire way through. And it was nice to finally hear in all its glory Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's score which was drowned out by theater noise the first time around. And yes, it's as effective as everyone's said. When it was over all I wanted to do was watch it again. It’s in that third viewing where I was literally jumping up and down with excitement as I watched. The movie playing back in my mind for the past 5 months collided with what was on the screen and I loved every second of it. A plot structure I had thought was messy actually had three very clear and distinct sections that comprised the narrative and contributed to the overall themes:

1.The introduction of chaos and anarchy into Gotham City in the form of the Joker
2.The moral test for the characters that resulted from it
3. The fallout

And looking back, it’s almost unbelievable that Nolan somehow accomplished this:

-A superhero film played completely straight, stripped down to the point where it could be classified as a hyper-realistic crime epic.
-The presentation of the Joker as an anarchist and terrorist who just doesn’t care.
-Batman’s chronic inability to grasp that idea to the point that Alfred needs to explain it to him.
-Lieutenant/ Commissioner Gordon depicted as a hero at a higher level than Batman.
-The portrayal of Harvey Dent as not only as a really likable guy, but a hero who suffers a Shakespearean-level fall from grace.
-Batman’s identity discovered.
-The first successful attempt at having two major villains in a Batman film by brilliantly having Joker be the engine driving Two-Face.
-Rachel Dawes DEAD.
-Two-Face DEAD.
-Joker survives, and WINS.
- The film closing with Batman a fugitive and Gordon destroying the bat signal.

With all the Oscar talk surrounding the film lately, looking at that list above makes me think the nomination it’s most deserving of just might in the screenplay category. Those are just the big points and it doesn’t even scratch the surface. That’s not to mention all the unforgettable scenes and images that stay with you like the bank robbery, Hong Kong, the interrogation, the pencil trick, the ferry, the climactic rooftop discussion, and of course, “Nurse Joker.” No more needs to be said about Ledger’s performance, but consider something: As powerful as it was it never overwhelmed the film or overshadowed anyone else. There was still plenty of breathing room. That’s a real credit to Nolan’s direction, the editing, and how controlled Ledger’s work remained while inhabiting the most uncontrollable of characters.

When I first saw the film Eckhart’s turn as Harvey Dent really stood out for me but the more viewings I have under my belt the more I appreciate what Gary Oldman did with Lieutenant Gordon. Here’s a character who throughout all the previous Batman installments was nothing but a throwaway figurehead. Here, Nolan re-imagines Gordon and Oldman brings him to life as a hero who must make tough moral decisions to protect the city he loves. He isn’t just a supporting player called upon to just throw up the bat signal on cue. You know this script is firing on all cylinders when by the end we not only care what happens to him, but also his family. Oldman’s subtly brilliant work is all but invisible the first time you watch the film but on repeated viewings it comes into clear focus. He’s the heart and soul.

The funny thing is I still think the film has its problems, has been massively overpraised, but that's not its fault. I’m betting a lot more people than are willing to admit had the same initial reaction to the movie I did and it does help to go into it prepared to not see your typical summer superhero film. Similarly, anyone approaching this with the mindset that it should be the greatest film ever made will be sorely disappointed. Nothing should have to live up to that tag. Instead, it slowly reveals itself as the layers are peeled away, which could explain how it’s done such great business through repeated viewings. The Dark Knight really is the rare film that gets better each time you watch it. On my third, I feel as if I've only begun to scratch the surface.

My biggest complaint that the film wasn’t any fun drew a lot of ire but it seems especially ridiculous and irrelevant now since no movie has given me more enjoyment over the past few months. I just never anticipated that the fun would occur AFTER I saw it, which serves as a reminder that the experience of watching a movie should continue long after it’s over, at least with the really good ones. It’s a little something called "STAYING POWER." I wouldn’t take back my initial review because I think in a crazy way it caused me to appreciate the film more in the long run. But there is still one thing I need to change:

**** (out of ****)

There we go, that’s better.


JD said...

Perhaps the greatest thing I have read about this film and one of the most honest things I have read by you.
This is wonderful. I bought it on Blu-Ray--- I better get a Blu-Ray player quick!!
What I like best is that I was able to talk about about it with lots of people at my gym who normally don't go to the movies at all. That is what I loved about it-- it got people to go to the movies who normally don't go.

Yes, this film has staying power. I only saw it twice in the theaters, but I could not stop thinking about it and I played the soundtrack endlessly for the rest of the summer in my car and still do.

Awesome essay!!!

TonyD said...

The film hasn't left my head since July. It really does hold up on rewatches.

I feel like I'll be writing soon for "The Dark Knight." There's so much that is going on that I might have to just jot all of my thoughts down to clear it up myself.

Excellent review!!!

Fred [The Wolf] said...

I still consider THE DARK KNIGHT the one film this year that still resonates in me today as it did all those months ago. I don't know why but I just loved, and I mean LOVED, this film. I always wanted a BATMAN flick to be like this, so when it happened, I was overwhelmed with satisfaction. And while I gave it a perfect score the first time, I liked it MORE the second time I saw it because I noticed things this time I didn't notice the first. Nolan is a master of that and I totally appreciate his skills as a director.

I'm happy the rating got changed because I don't think TDK deserves less than 4 stars. It's really that good. And this was an excellent write-up, Jeremy. Keep 'em coming!