The Dark Knight

The first misconception about The Dark Knight is that it’s a superhero movie. It’s not a superhero movie, or a crime drama either. It’s a horror movie — an epic one, and a great one. Madness and mutilation are on the menu, as well as disturbing ideas about the nature of humans. In the corrupt Gotham City as presented by cowriter-director Christopher Nolan, Batman (Christian Bale) might actually be making things worse. He operates outside the law, giving rise to loutish copycats with guns and makeshift Batman garb. He takes it upon himself to represent order, giving rise to a cackling agent of chaos known as the Joker, who wants to fiddle — or giggle — while Gotham burns.

The second misconception is that the late Heath Ledger gives a great swan-song performance as the Joker. I didn’t see Heath Ledger anywhere in this movie; there is only the Joker, unexplained, unreachable, unstoppable. The Joker is perhaps the most frightening character seen onscreen since Anthony Hopkins hissed at Jodie Foster behind Plexiglas. If it would amuse him to kill you or disfigure you, he will. If it would please him to take Gotham’s avatar of white-knightism, the incorruptible district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and sculpt him into a hideously ironic distortion of Harvey’s public image, he’ll do that too. The horror of the movie is that only a select few build nobility on a foundation of trauma; the rest fall away into hatred and psychosis.

The third misconception is that this is a Batman movie. It is, sort of, but only incidentally. As usual, Batman gets upstaged by his more colorful foes, though the glowing eyes in his cowl when he activates his new sonar device are a neat touch. It’s really an ensemble piece, with people all over Gotham — good cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Batman/Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Batman’s tech guru Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Harvey’s girlfriend (and Bruce’s ex) Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) — getting drawn into the vortex created by the Joker’s insistence on Batman’s revealing his identity and Batman’s hesitance to do so.

The Dark Knight is beautifully shot (by Wally Pfister) and edited to within a millimeter of its life in order to come in at a manageable two hours and thirty-two minutes (which fly by). It feels rushed, especially towards the end; I look forward to an extended cut on Blu-ray. Nolan’s films seldom have any flab on them, but this one could’ve used a bit more breathing room. I would’ve liked more of crime-family head Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts, suavely amoral in what will undoubtedly be his most-watched performance ever), and a little more going on between Harvey and Rachel so as to prepare better for where Harvey’s character arc goes. And I would’ve enjoyed the action sequences more if they were conceived and composed with more clarity. Back when action films demanded practical stuntwork by men and women who were risking their lives, directors made damn sure you could see what was going on. With CGI, everything’s too easy, too manipulable in post-production.

Still, this is a remarkable achievement in suspense and mood. The near-mythical clash between Batman (whose darkness and rage are forever held just barely in check) and the Joker (who happily lets his darkness and rage off the leash — if they were ever on a leash) dominates the film in a way it didn’t, quite, in Tim Burton’s mordantly amusing Batman (1989). Burton used the midnight-blue world of Batman to express himself (you could hear him telling Batman, “See, to them you’re just a freak — like me”); Nolan uses it to make points about our psychological DNA. Bizarre and pulpy as it may seem on the outside, The Dark Knight speaks uncomfortable truths about why we are what we are, as many classic horror films do. It’s a contest between evil men who fiercely show their ravaged faces to the world and a good man whose face is unscarred but hidden anyway.

Explore posts in the same categories: comic-book, one of the year's best, sequel

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