Monday, July 21, 2008

Review :: The Dark Knight

Here it is, my altogether too long review of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.

I suppose it remains to be seen whether or not Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight will go down in history as the great piece of cinema that everyone is clearly calling it at the moment. Time, after all, has a funny way of making us all look bad and in serious need of better judgment. But, that being said, as far as I can tell there absolutely is no reason why it should not go down as one of the single greatest superhero movies of all time, if not the greatest. I normally do not trust the hyperbole and media hype surrounding a film, especially when it surrounds a big-budget superhero movie, so I went into a screening of The Dark Knight deliberately skeptical and demanding that Nolan and company work hard to convince. They did not disappoint. Nolan, Bale and Ledger were up to the challenge, it seems, because convince me they did. They fully convinced me. In fact, I haven't been so convinced of a movie's greatness since I stumbled out of my first screening of There Will Be Blood last year. It's that good. Believe the hype, believe the hyperbole: The Dark Knight is not only perhaps the most perfectly conceived and executed comic-book movie of all time but it is also, as far as I'm concerned, a legitimate contender for best picture of the year so far.

In the wake of the events of Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) continues his vigilante crusade against Gotham's criminal element. His determination to bring order out of chaos has led to a safer city and he is now even able to consider retirement: with people like the idealistic Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham's new District Attorney, stepping up and bringing down the mobster element, the Batman can perhaps forever hang up his cape and mask and pursue the more normal, domestic pleasures of life. At just the moment when it seems as if Batman and his loose partnership with the Gotham police force's Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) may have won the war on crime, however, a wild card is thrown into the mix: a disfigured, painted, lip-smacking angel of chaos, the Joker (Heath Ledger). Unlike any of the mobsters or villains Batman has faced before, the Joker does not want anything other than to revel in the complete collapse of order. He does not want power, he does not want money. All he wants, as Alfred tells Bruce Wayne, is to see the world burn. Can a villain such as this - one who represents not so much a type of criminal but a type of metaphysical flaw - even be defeated? If it can, can it be defeated by a rational mind or is this, as the Joker maniacally declares, a battle between freaks?

It is this sort of philosophical pondering that elevates The Dark Knight above its so-called peers. Despite it's own comic-book origins, and despite the Batman franchise's questionable cinematic pedigree (Batman Begins excepted, of course) The Dark Knight is piece of serious filmmaking. Unlike the experience of other superhero efforts - Spider-Man, for instance, or this summer's own over-praised Iron Man - in which you are constantly reminded that, yes indeed, this is a comic-book fantasy, The Dark Knight broods within a simmering pool of plausibility. I'm not saying that it is without its implausible moments but that it does not ever fall back upon the tired and conventional tropes of the genre. If I may make a perhaps slightly blasphemous cinematic comparison, The Dark Knight does for the comic-book movie what Stanley Kubrick's The Shining did for horror: by completely transcending the obvious limitations of the genre, the movie establishes itself as something greater than the genre even permits. The Dark Knight is not only a great comic-book movie, it is a great movie.

Even though it's his show, the Bruce Wayne/Batman character actually takes a step back from centre stage in The Dark Knight and Christian Bale, who proved in Batman Begins that nobody else should ever play Batman, takes a similar step back in his performance, allowing the stories of others to be told. Many of the themes that dominated Batman Begins return in The Dark Knight but are this time located in other characters. It's as if each character, from Gary Oldman's resolute Lt. Gordon to Aaron Eckhart's idealistic Harvey Dent and yes even to Heath Ledger's demonic Joker, have become thematic extensions of Batman himself and seem to represent individual aspects of Bruce Wayne's personality. Bale, who really is given the least glamourous role of the major characters, and whose character doesn't really have as strong an arc as either the Gordon or Dent characters, never once tries to one-up his co-stars but always delivers a perfectly taut and controlled performance, as we've come to expect from him. His co-stars, in turn, rise to the challenge: Oldman is fantastic and Eckhart is, for the most part, quite good, though his performance does get a little cartoony towards the end, which is one of my only criticisms of the film.

And then there is Heath Ledger. Watching Ledger descend into the Joker is like watching Daniel Day-Lewis become Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York; it's like watching Javier Bardem incarnate evil as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men; it's like watching Darth Vader, Freddy Krueger or Jack Torrence leave their mark on cinema; it's as irrefutable and iconic a performance as anything else that has ever come out of Hollywood. With all respect to Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill and anyone else who's ever taken a stab at the character over the years, Heath Ledger is the Joker. And yet, as insane as the role is, the Joker himself, as conceived of by Nolan and Ledger, is not merely a homicidal lunatic. He is chaos. Devouring, insatiable chaos. And he is beautiful and terrible to behold

That's all I have to say about The Dark Knight. I could get into a couple of minor criticisms: a few moments, most of which revolve around a particular character in the film's last act, are still a little too comic-booky for my taste and seem almost stylistically incongruous with the rest of the film; not all the performances are great - Maggie Gyllenhaal is straight up boring and Morgan Freeman is... well, he's just Morgan Freeman; and if anything there seems to be almost an over-abundance of plot. But I won't get into those. They hardly matter in the face of everything else that the film is doing. The Dark Knight is a masterpiece. There, I've said it. Hyperbole be damned, it's a masterpiece. If you haven't seen it yet, go; if you aren't planning on seeing it, go anyway; if you've seen it and don't agree with me, stop going to the theatre because you obviously aren't there to watch great movies.

experto crede: best film of the year so far, and this from a guy who on principle hates almost all comic-book movies (except Hellboy).


iFester said...

Great review once again. I also like the new look for your blog.

Nevis said...

Great review. I loved the just made me slightly sad to see Ledger knowing that he's dead. You know?

What did you think of the make up on Harvey? That was the one part I didn't liked. Seemed...unrealistic. You know? TOO cartoony.

dcornelius said...

Yes, I absolutely agree with you. I didn't really want to get into spoiler territory, so I only made vague references to it, but the Harvey make-up seemed a little too extreme to me. It felt visually out-of-sync with the rest of the film's aesthetic, which is so understated and grounded in a type of reality.

Nevis said...

Yes...I definatly wish they'd done something more subtle...and less 'Night of the Living Dead' felt disjointed. But everything else was bit of discord in a beautiful symphony.

dcornelius said...

Well said!

Life of Turner said...

I agree with most of what you said, although I was not very impressed with Bale. I thought he played back a little too much. I really appreciated the final act with Two-Face, and though I agree that it took a turn toward implausibility (the sheer pain of that disfigurement would have crippled him), I see that as a small issue. Plus Two-Face was just creepy. And good call on the Joker - there are only a few movie villains who have chilled me like Ledger did: Jack Torrance, Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, and Chigurh. A brilliant performance to end an unfortunately abbreviated career. This is the new template for comic book movies.

dcornelius said...

New template indeed. Unfortunately, that'll probably just mean that we are that much more disappointed in all the films that try and fail to meet the standard set by this one.

I don't really mind the implausibility of the Two-Face character, I just wasn't a fan of th effect. It looked to exaggerated in comparison with everything else. But that's really only a minor criticism. It certainly didn't take away from my enjoyment of the film.

Wish we could have seen this one together, dude. I still totally think that you should have rescheduled your honeymoon to accommodate my cinematic needs. You're so selfish. Also, you're wrong about Bale. But I'll just write that off as a post-nuptial lapse in judgment. Your mind is obviously elsewhere.