It’s been a long time since I enjoyed a movie as throughly as ‘The Dark Knight’. Let’s just get that statement out in the front right now. Hell, I think the last movie I saw more than once in a theatre was ‘Return of the King;, and bear in mind I was seeing stuff for free as a manager at a theatre. I’ve caught this one twice now, and keep feeling the urge to get my backside over there for a third outing.
The Nolans have created a beautiful script that draws upon some of the greatest Batman storylines, while still creating something that is certainly its own unique monster. Squint, and you can see panels from ‘The Long Halloween’, listen to some of the dialog and you can picture panels straight out of ‘The Killing Joke’. This is how a comic book movie should be done: by people who understand and respect the source material, and who are good at what they do. Christopher Nolan strikes me as a director who is not only brilliant at what he does, but also secure enough in his own talent to absorb input from those around him. There are far too many prima donas in the director’s seat who can’t say the same, so I give huge amounts of respect and credit to Nolan for not being one of them, for having the vision to allow his cast to take the script in directions it perhaps wasn’t going when branded onto the page.
And what a script! What a friggin’ movie! From the opening bank heist to the final denoument, this thing rolls like a ten-ton wrecking ball, never giving you a chance to catch your breath really, always keeping you waiting with anxiety for the next twist to come about. Nolan does the conjurer’s trick, always directing the mind one way while pulling his sleight of hand. Not surprising for someone who gave us ‘The Prestige’ really. However, all the twists and turns are logical, well thought out and compliment rather than distract from the overall theme and plot. The characters remain true to themselves throughout, the entire cast has a clear and steely grasp on who they are portraying down to the smallest quirk and expression.
Harvey Dent is made a tragic character in a way I don’t think has ever been accomplished so fully in any other medium. We see this crusading DA, his ambitions and determination, his fierce commitment and unwavering courage. We see his hopes and dreams, the warm human being beneath the armour of Gotham’s white knight. And the whole time, we’re sitting there with a numb feeling, knowing the horror that will ultimately befall this character. The whole thing is pulled off with a Hitchokian flair. As Hitch always said, let the audience know more than the characters, let them know there’s a bomb under the table and then spend awhile with your characters just idly chatting away, oblivious to the doom quickly ticking away below them. That is the kind of nerve-wracking tension every scene with Harvey Dent has, the more we come to admire and feel for this heroic figure, the more anxious we become. When the grisly pay-off comes (hey! spoiler for anybody who hasn’t read a friggin’ comic book in thirty years) and Harvey becomes Two-Face, it is handled with such pathos and almost sadistic brutality that it’s like a concentrated effort to take our worst fears for the character and then one-up them. The change from crusader to monster is the main theme of the movie, really, and it works brilliantly. Not once does Harvey’s transition into Two-Face seem forced or contrived. If there is a single fault with the movie, I would say it is the lack of screen time given to Two-Face. He’s so amazing in his scenes, and they contrast so starkly with Harvey Dent that it would have been nice to see more done with him.
Gordon is even better than he was in the first film, Gary Oldman has this part down to a degree where I stop thinking of him as anybody but Jim Gordon while watching it. Again, we get a character who is fully realised, down to the smallest foible and nuance. Gordon has alot of screen time in this one and plays a pivotal role, it’s actually really nice to see him even more prominent than in ‘Batman Begins’.
Alfred and Lucius Fox are both given more to do as well, each getting their moments to really shine. Again, Caine and Freeman give such amazing performances, it’s not going to be easy to ever think of the characters without comparing them to the portrayals of these two professionals. They also get all of the best lines. Well, all of the ones that don’t come from a clown, that is.
Batman, well, he’s still the Bat, and it’s nice to see a little of how his one-man crusade has actually started to clean up Gotham. Christian Bale is an actor who, I hate to say, never impressed me until ‘Batman Begins’. In fact, I had so detested his previous work, I had pretty much written off ‘Batman Begins’ until I was pretty much dragged to it by my friend. I don’t have any qualms saying I was as wrong about his fitness to be Batman as a person can be. He IS the part. Everything is there, the debonair public mask as Bruce Wayne, the brooding intensity and carefully restrained violence of Batman, all of it very carefully layered so that you are never sure where Batman stops and Bruce Wayne begins. It is also great to see Batman doing detective work rather than simply fisticuffs and techno-gadgetry (unlike a couple of god-awful films I could mention, but won’t). You get the clear impression that the Bat’s brains are every bit as cutting edge as his League of Shadows-trained body and his Wayne Enterprises military hardware. There are also some great moments where some logical developments of Batman’s career are dealt with that lend an even greater touch of realism to the movie, such as copycats and some of the loose ends from funding Batman courtesy of Wayne Enterprises. Plus, we get to see Batman in Hong Kong! How cool is that!
Okay, okay, enough of the rest of the movie. We all know what the focus is. We all know what character dominates the whole thing, whether he’s on screen or not. Remember what I said about Bale as Batman when I first heard about it? Well, I felt the same way about Heath Ledger, though after being so wrong last time I wasn’t saying word one until I saw what made Nolan choose him. Well, I didn’t see Ledger in this movie. What I saw was The Joker. I can really credit some of the wild stories out there that this part consumed the actor, because it is probably the most frightening (yet gruesomely funny) villain ever put on screen. Even with the Burton film, as great as the Joker was, you still knew that was Jack Nicholson. Not here. No, this was the Joker, pure and simple. The actor disappeared into the part the way I’ve never seen happen, not in anything. not Kurosawa, not Hitch, not anywhere.
A deranged sociopath with a lethal sense of humour, a death wish, and completely unpredictable mood swings. Forget all that ‘Clown Prince of Crime’ stuff from the Romero-era, this is the Joker as he first appeared back in 1940, as he became when ‘The Laughing Fish’ storyline appeared in the late 70’s. This is the dangerous, murderous clown who giggles while he plays his deadly games, completely unable to feel the slightest empathy for anyone, himself included. Again, every little tic and gesture adds to the character, from his slouching, almost slinking posture, his almost reptilian way of licking his lips, his split-second changes of mood and expression; all of it adds up to one scary character. What makes him even scarier is this is a smart man, whatever his insanity, he has a methodical and calculating mind. These aren’t the Riddler’s mind games, testing intelligence and critical thinking. These are sick manipulations of morality and willpower, calculated efforts to strip away all that is good and decent and expose the brute animal at the core of every human being. The Joker is good at knowing what makes people tick, and that is what makes his character both fascinating and terrifying, giving him a power to dominate from off-screen that probably even Sauron would envy.
Oh, and he is so damnably, darkly funny. It was my big fear that Nolan would make the Joker so dark and murderous that his humourous side would be completely lost. What I loved about the Bruce Timm series was his ability to maintain both parts of the character seamlessly. Well, Ledger does the same thing, and in spades. Take for instance when Batman first confronts him. The Joker shoots out a window, presumably to make an escape, and is using Rachel as a hostage. When Batman tells him to ‘let her go’ and the Joker responds ‘Poor choice of words’ as he drops her out the penthouse window, you really get the impression the idea of dropping her didn’t occur to him until Batman ‘suggested’ it. And, of course, the way his face shifts from threatening to a malicious grin is both amusing and disturbing.
Another great, and telling scene, is when they do catch the Joker. Sitting in his cell, there’s a lingering shot of him just sitting there staring that is scarier than every shot of Hannibal Lecter. Without even saying anything, just with the way his eyes look, there’s just this feeling of wrongness about the Joker, like what we’d call a soul just isn’t anywhere behind those eyes. Again, there’s a great tip of the script to ‘The Killing Joke’ with the Joker displaying his penchant for ‘multiple choice’ personal history. It adds another creepy layer to him and is a great bone to throw to the fans.
It is a real pity Ledger never got to see this performance for himself, nor bask in the glow of such a critcally acclaimed display of his talent. I can’t really say anything else on that subject except add my regrets and condolences.
So, if you are reading this and still haven’t gotten out from under whatever rock you are living under and seen ‘The Dark Knight’ I suggest you check your pulse. You might just be dead and not noticed.