July 20, 2008

Movie Review: The Dark Knight

First of all, if you're planning on seeing this movie any time soon, stop reading this post right now. And go see it already. Get a babysitter if you have a kid. Find somewhere that is showing it in English if you're overseas. With that out of the way, I'll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum for those who can't help themselves but don't have access to the movie right now.

Back when this blog was very young, I wrote: "Simply put, Batman Begins is the best Batman movie – the best Batman media – that has yet been made." That statement stands, although that's only after some careful contemplation after having seen The Dark Knight.

Story: It is about one year after the events of Batman Begins, and Gotham City is starting to turn around. The sight of the Bat-signal on the perpetually-foggy night skies of Gotham is enough to set common criminals on edge. Organized crime in the city is also on edge as many of the heads of the various crime families have been captured. The Caped Crusader has found allies in the mainstream -- honest cop Jim Gordon, trying to walk a tightrope between actually fighting crime and containing corruption in the police department, and go-getter tough-guy district attorney Harvey Dent. Gordon, Dent, and Batman form an uneasy troika of crime-fighters, working hard to trust one another while remembering who the bad guys are. But doom is coming in the form of the Joker -- not just a villain but a true nemesis for the Batman.

Script: At two and a half hours of screen time, The Dark Knight leaves you wondering if maybe another round of editing could not have been done. Much of the storytelling is tight, and the story seems to take all the time that it needs to in order to make its plot points along the way. Obviously, much of the movie is intended to get to the meat of the film, which are the action sequences.

Fans of Batman comics and the Batman stories will see the element of brooding doom hanging over the story come to fruition, unfortunately far too late to be truly satisfying. The continuing theme is one of corruption -- the ease with which good is transmuted to evil. In an early action sequence in the movie, the Batman broods for a moment upon a rooftop before sweeping down into action -- falling, at first barely in control of his own descent, and finally ending in a crash of violence. In their own way, every character in the movie is taken to the brink and forced to either take control of their flight on the way down or to fall all the way into the abyss.

The exception to this theme is the Joker. He is fully conscious that he has slipped over the edge, and he embraces his role as the agent of chaos, destruction, and ultimately of corruption with a relish. Comparisons to Hannibal Lechter and Darth Vader will inevitably be made -- and they are apt. All three of these iconic villains are entirely conscious of their own evil natures, comfortable with who and what they are, and indeed eager to corrupt others to become like them.

Cast: Most of the cast from Batman Begins is back. One change is Maggie Gyllenhaal playing the role of Rachael Dawes, Bruce Wayne's romantic interest. This is a good decision; Katie Holmes was simply too youthful in appearance and Gyllenhaal brings a level of gravity and maturity to the role, without losing any youthful good looks, to render the character believable.

Much has been said about Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker. With good reason -- he brought a tremendous relish and life to this character. In keeping with the leitmotif of the rebooted Batman, he is quite human, and quite believable. This makes him very, very scary. He is clearly possessed of both a fearsome intelligence and a disturbed, malign sociopathy. It would be easy to dismiss the Joker as psychotic, but he is actually nothing of the sort. He is fully aware of the reality around him and sees things for what they are. He is playing a game with his victims, but not the way a cat plays with a mouse before eating it. He's much more cruel than that, although he never loses sight of the fact that he is indeed playing a game. Rather than being a deeply sick, twisted individual, he is something else, something worse. Indeed, it is not clear that he is insane at all. And, actually, quite funny, in a bloody, twisted sort of way. Our introduction to the character shows that he has a very active and, shall we say, piercing sense of humor. But far from being an over-the-top comic book cutout, this guy is evil.

Aaron Eckhart plays Harvey Dent with square-jawed handsomeness and strength. You want to like Dent. Like the other characters in the movie, you want him to be the White Knight who rescues Gotham from the crime and corruption, and you want him to reconcile himself with the Batman so that society can become normal and safe again. As I said above, the sense of doom lingering over him is so long coming, that when the payoff finally hits, you wonder what exactly he's going to do with it. His playing-with-chance character wrinkle is, of course, very important to his character but it seems a little bit grafted as Eckhart delivers his performance.

My big complaint about the movie is that Batman is the least interesting of all of the major characters. Lieutenant Gordon, Lucius Fox, and Rachel Dawes all get to be more interesting than they were in the first Batman movie, but this comes at the expense of really understanding the struggles going on in the hero's mind. He seems too comfortable with his dual existence as billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and super-vigilante Batman; he seems at ease with his powers and views the kinds of things he needs to do as mere technical challenges. There is little sense of his moral struggle; there is little sense that he appreciates the duality between himself and the Joker. He claims to look forward to a day in the future when he can put away his alter-ego and be a "normal" person again but in fact it is apparent that he enjoys the Batman persona and is empowered by his nocturnal life fighting crime. Were he to have struggled more with the challenge to relinquish his identity, or have wrestled more visibly with the moral dilemmas the movie presented him, I would perhaps have had a better time with the movie.

Cinematography: About a half-dozen action sequences were shot in the IMAX format, which gives them a crystalline clarity to watch. Much of the action takes place at night but it is easy to see and follow what is happening. There is a fair amount of work going on in tall buildings and of course nearly everything happens in an urban setting of oppressive streets and canyons carved out of steel, glass, and concrete. One visual device used later in the movie was both patently believable and visually annoying.

Costumes: Most of the characters are portrayed in business or evening dress most of the time. The Batman's costume undergoes a needed change, reflected in an early plot point. The Joker is a horrifying sight to behold indeed, and it is difficult to look away from him. His costume, the purple-and-green suit is perfect -- he's clearly better than a vagrant and has given a lot more thought to his appearance than he would like his victims to believe, but it is still bizarre enough to be a trademark look. And the makeup is really, really creepy, especially when it starts to come off of his face and you realize that there really is a man underneath the makeup.

Effects: Astonishingly good. The stunts, action sequences, and special effects are what you're paying for with the price of admission, and the movie delivers. The auto chase scene is fantastic. There's lots of hand-to-hand combat; the Joker and his minions are fighters, as are the police; and one scene in particular will blow you away (you think you've seen it in the trailers but in fact, the trailers don't do a good job of showing how this happens). And shooting these sequences in IMAX makes them beautiful and clear. The effects for the climactic scenes with Aaron Eckhart are particularly good.

Music: There was music? Of course there was, but like most really good cinema scores, it's almost impossible to remember any of it because it supports the action and the story so well. The trademark Batman theme music is only prominent enough to be memorable during the closing credits.

Comments: Although I was initially quite disappointed with the Batman being so dull a character in this movie, and one or two elements were less than perfect, overall this was a seriously good movie and worthy of its place following up Batman Begins. But Ledger as the Joker lingers on in your mind. The more I think about the way he played this character, the more amazed I am at just how scary he was.

Go see this movie already.


Michael Reynolds said...

I am so there. They're doing it in English in Florence next week.

I know you don't do the whole kid thing, but your guess would be that I should not bring either an 8 or 11 year old?

Burt Likko said...

The violence is pretty intense. Aside from that (oh yeah, that) there is no nudity or sex and very little profanity. But I wouldn't take a pre-teen to it because of the violence.