R3view: The Dark Knight
Director: Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige, Batman Begins)
Writers: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, David S. Goyer
Producers: Christopher Nolan, Charles Roven, Emma Thomas
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 152 min
Batman continues to act as a force of vigilante justice in Gotham City, but his presence causes a number of copy-cat ‘crime-fighters’ to complicate the situation. District Attorney Harvey Dent steps up to clean up the criminal element using more due-process means, while the Joker comes to town to burn the place down. Mayhem and pondered morality ensue.
Let me just put it out there: this is the best superhero film ever made.
With a running time of a hefty two and a half hours, director Christopher Nolan and his mega-ensemble of talented actors exceeded all of my high expectations. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman – the cast could seemingly be a snapshot of a “best of” lineup, and each performer nails their respective role, all creating effectively well-rounded characters that one can relate to. And I was very pleased to see Oldman get some major screen time as Jim Gordon. Props Nolan. You know what not to waste.
Of course, one actor outshines the rest. We all know who I’m referring too, as the hype surrounding the actor’s last complete role has been enormous. And as expected (and as has been repeated over and over again), it’s not just hype. Heath Ledger really is that good, creating an iconic and memorable villain worthy to stand by the likes of Anton Chigurh and Darth Vader alike. The delivery of his lines, the attention to The Joker’s quirks, his sardonic laugh – you know that Best Supporting Actor nomination everybody is talking about? It’s his.
The Dark Knight is a complex, sometimes brutal tale of morality, of hope, of choices, of men’s limits – and it really does play out less like what we’ve come to know of superhero movies and more like a serious crime-drama, perhaps a spiritual successor to Heat (a movie Nolan cited as a big influence). Each scene, from the opening bank heist to the climatic finale is tightly woven to create this impressive tour de force of summer blockbuster brilliance. It’s all aided by the beautiful cinematography, the fantastic score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton, the well-done but not over-used CGI, and the fantastic action sequences and character interaction.
Like all movies, there are flaws (and with each viewing, it’s possible more may become apparent), but for me, I had so much fun that they were easy to overlook. This did everything a summer action blockbuster should do and far, far more. There will be plenty of those that roll their eyes, those that just can’t bring themselves to eat this exquisitely delicious meal that Nolan has cooked up for us, and that’s just fine (if not expected), but as my first five-star review of the year, this has raised the bar for not only superhero movies, but summer blockbusters in general. Take some notes on Nolan, Michael Bay – action, style, and substance are more than possible to combine.
It was expected that The Dark Knight was going to break box office records. The film’s promotion machine seems to have been going full swing since Comic-Con ’07 and the collective excitement of fans was starting to rub off on people who had only heard of Batman in passing. As reviews for the film started coming in, I began to worry. Did Christopher Nolan’s really new creation be this good or was I being ramped up for disappointment? I was hoping for the best but as I expected and somewhat feared, Noland’s film didn’t blow my mind. Actually, it didn’t even make my top 5 list of films seen so far this year. A reaction to the hype? In part yes. My reaction is partly elevated by the hype for the film but the truth is that The Dark Knight isn’t perfect.
It’s unfair to lop Nolan’s achievement as simply a comic book movie. Though some directors have attempted, and failed, to elevate superheroes from the pages of comic books and brought them into the real world (see Iron Man (our review)), Nolan has successfully created a film that is far above and beyond its predecessors. This is much more than a comic book film; it has taken a character from a comic (a character which has the odd tendency to dress up as a bat and fight crime) and made him human and believable in a reality akin to our own. The Gotham City created by Nolan is a crime ridden city reminiscent of many a real locale and the themes of love, violence, evil and morality aren’t limited to a comic book scope, they’re human and they are handled as human emotions from individuals that feel like real people. Nolan deserves all of the credit he is given – it is a massive and exceptional achievement. Where things go wrong is with the story itself.
Conceived by Nolan and comic book writer David S. Goyer, the film starts off well enough but approximately 90 minutes in, the entire thing goes south. The audience starts to get shifty and there’s an elevated level of chatter as the film seems to come to a natural conclusion. Except that it’s not over. There are still 60 minutes left but what’s left to fill them with? This is where The Dark Knight goes from being exceptional to being good. The last hour of the film feels tacked on as an unnecessary after thought and the characters that fill it seem rushed and a little wasted. I would have preferred to see them get their own film and more time to develop and grow.
At the 90 minute mark, I also realized that a few things that had not bothered me until that point started to wear me down. Christian Bale’s raspy Batman voice, Aaron Eckhart’s knight in shinning armor shtick, The Joker’s lip smacking. The excellent performances from the cast started to wear thin as the innovation they brought to their characters waded through an unnecessary story and the more I watched, the more annoyed I became. The downhill trot didn’t only affect my reaction to the actors but also to Nolan’s choices. The action sequences started to feel overly long and gimmicky and I started to drown in sensory overload, something that didn’t even happen with Speed Racer (our review). I felt tired and drained and when the credits started to roll, I had to force myself to get up. Nolan didn’t just wear me down; he tired me out and depressed me; I felt the weight of not having enjoyed this as much as everyone else seemed to.
I enjoyed watching the first part of The Dark Knight but by the time the encore started, I was ready to call it quits. Nolan’s film is far from bad but it does suffer from trying to cram too much into one picture. What the film does put on display is Nolan’s even further elevated flare for visuals and characterization. I look forward to seeing what he brings to the table in his next non-comic book film. I have a feeling we’re in for a great treat.
The Dark Knight just might put the nail in the coffin of Tim Burton’s German expressionism molded films as the chief cinematic image of Batman. And, boy, oh boy have we gone a long way from the neon-lit, side-kick heavy Schumacher entries (the latter of which is certainly bane of the fanboys existence, the mere mention is akin of bringing up Adolf Hitler in any kind of internet conversation). While Christopher Nolan’s first entry into the new millennium incarnation of everyone’s favourite vigilante (well outside the Charles Bronson fan-club), aimed to ground the comic sensibility in a veneer of ‘realism’ to mixed success, his follow up brings that style and tone a step in a more interesting direction. One that can only be described as Fincher-esque.
While New York Times critic Manohla Dargis pointed out similarities between the actions of the Joker and the Zodiac killer (a heady cocktail of media-induced celebrity and media-induced fear as portrayed in the best film of 2007), I think the look and feel of The Dark Knight can be viewed through the prism of David Fincher’s entire career and how that career has influenced American movies in general. Take the Jokers elaborate schemes, which aim at driving the anarchy and nihilism factor of Gotham City to the breaking point. Now look at John Doe in Seven. If there was a box with Rachel Dawes head in it, I would not be too surprised. It is rather ludicrous at times, particularly how he get gets along with his ‘co-workers,’ that the Joker’s schemes seem to run like clockwork. For a bit of a nutter, his schemes have a built in awareness of where people are going to be, even in something as random as a chase or even incarceration. As in Finchers most over the top film, The Game. And the ‘laugh while the world burns’ and prisoners dilemma type games theory writ large on an urban canvas comes across like a wet dream from the Tyler Durden’s imagination. The old Batman comic saw of ‘Freak like Me’ also echoes the relationship of Fight Club’s narrator and his inner anarchist. The ‘green happy face’ of Project Mayhem may just as well be a Joker calling card. And what the hey, the temporary ‘bat cave’ which ends up being a super-surveillance network might as well be a form of Panic Room as the city is on fire. In fact, a party guest asks at one point during the Jokers big entrance into the Gotham elite asks Bruce Wayne if he’s got a panic room handy. Maybe a stretch, maybe not. The make your own island in the sea of chaos before the winds blow you down sentiment belongs in the Fincher ouvre well enough.
The Dark Knight is playing right alongside another unusual comic book sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army. At one point Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro was going to direct Seven, but turned it down because in his own words, “it was a very cynical view of the world. I loved it, I wanted to see it, but I’m a romantic, fat bastard and I don’t subscribe to that view.” Well, some of the moral quandaries thrown at the Bat Man and the citizens of Gotham have no clean solution. In that post 9/11 sort of way, heroes may have to burn half the place down to stop the terrorists, compromise their own ideals and likely cause just as many ripple-effect problems as the problem they are trying to eliminate. This is the ugliness of The Dark Knight, which makes it oh-so-different than cotton candy like Ironman. This is not to say that Christopher Nolan is simply stealing or copying from David Fincher. But rather the nihilistic Nolan of Memento and The Prestige is out in full force in this one, where it was curiously muted under the ‘realism-laced’ reinvention of Batman Begins, here it is unfettered as Batman gliding over Gotham wings out but nevertheless still dominated by the vastness of the city below. Gotham is the crucible for a bombastic morality play going on for every single one of those necessary 152 minutes, and Batman is dwarfed by the inferno.
Now imagine a triple bill of No Country For Old Men, Zodiac and The Dark Knight. Who says going to the multiplex is a wasteland of sugary emptiness? These are fascinating motion pictures that all evaluate violence from the American psychic journey of competent go-getter to the worn out and broken sighs of the best intentions leading to greater failure. It makes me love American cinema like I love those 1970s ‘movie brat’ pictures from Friedkin, Scorsese and Coppola. Throw in Michael Haneke’s remake of Funny Games (either version) for the angry European reaction to all of this. And what interesting timing for the Funny Games US DVD to act as a primer for on-screen mayhem of The Dark Knight and what it means for families to bring their children to such casual and brutal murder. The Dawes/Dent dilemma as well as the two ferries in the narrows are pretty brutal stuff for little Johnny and Sally.
Further cinematic linkage would be Jack Nicholson in Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men, snarling out the catchphrase, “You can’t handle the truth!” A previous ‘joker’ himself, Nicholson’s statement (along with the more expository explanation (“Son, we live in a world that has walls and those walls need to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and curse the Marines; you have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives and that my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use then as the backbone of a life trying to defend something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said “thank you,” and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest that you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to. “) is a thing that The Dark Knight chews on and chews on until its audience is sore from the punishment. I don’t think the film takes one side or another, its murky un-message is kinda the point. But it has no hesitation indicating that often enough the truth is better burned out of existence. We (the people) can’t handle it, it will confuse us and distract from a higher purpose. Of course, in a way, because we (the audience) have gods eye while watching this film, we get to know nonetheless. Is it more palatable to shout ‘you can’t handle it’ if you are in fact the keeper of the knowledge? There are a couple controversial executive decisions made in the film which should be fun to digest on further viewings.
Ditto on the similarities of Anton Chigurh’s coin tossing vs. Harvey ‘two-face’ Dent’s. While I think Anton’s is more of a demonstration to his victim and Anton is going to do what he feels like doing, justified by the coin or not, I actually think Dent’s insane ‘random-trumps-all’ tossing is scarier, and dovetails nicely in with The Jokers gamemanship. It is fair criticism that both Dent and Chigurh are pretty comic-book in their portrayal on screen while The Joker seems to transcend to fun comic-ness of Nicholson’s portrayal into something much darker, a bogey man for our times. One that only exists this perfectly in the white noise miasma of the media subconscious: the school shooters, falling World Trade Centers and Hurricane Katrinas. Oh they are real, but just not quite this ideal as the balls-to-the-wall spitting Ledger (who further adds some meta with his own celebrity suicide).
Oh, did I forget to actually review The Dark Knight? Well, that is because there are so many interesting ideas, and layers of Gothams players (much of the spectrum is represented here, a boon to the lengthy and deserved run time) that you forget that you are watching a comic book blockbuster. In that regard, Christopher Nolan fails somewhat with herky-jerky editing that often goes nowhere interesting, particularly any notion of fight choreography or clear geography. Not a big deal, I was too busy thinking to care if my eyes were distracted by the usual comic-book fireworks (although the bat-bike was pretty slick). Christian Bale remained about as serviceable as usual in the lead role that here, pleasantly, is one of many characters, rather than the focus. Nice to see Aaron Eckhart channel some of his smarm/charm back from his “In the Company of Men” days (I think it his hilarious that this lawyer is the ‘White Knight of Gotham’, did nobody watch Neil LaBute’s directorial debut?). And Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman are all great and get goodly amounts of screen time, which is nice to round out the picture, and give these fine players (well the latter three) something more to do than the first go around.
Pop The Dark Knight up in the company and class of Ang Lee’s Hulk. A thinking fellows comic book film. One that lives up to the “Dark” in its title and demonstrates with cynical glee that ugliness is a way of life and that a light at the end of the tunnel is unlikely; but that doesn’t mean we should stop groping for a solution. Yes, David Fincher has got to like this one.
“Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Mr. Caine speaks some of the truer and more poignant words reflecting exactly our world today. To destroy these men, the good guy might have to do some burning of his own. One of several layers of the sweet smelling blossom of an onion that is The Dark Knight.
To all those fans and critics out there awarding pictures such as Hellboy 2 with a prestigious five stars, what are you going to do now when you see how a superhero movie can really be made? – one with depth, drama, humor, action (and then some) and supreme acting? Are you going to give it five and a half out of five? Take notes; Christopher Nolan shows exactly what can be put into a film to make it truly worthy of your “perfect” scores.
Having thoroughly enjoyed The Dark Knight, I personally wouldn’t put it quite at the level of Oscar worthy. I can be convinced that Ledger should be nominated, but best picture? Let’s not jump the proverbial gun.
The funny thing is, I don’t really have any complaints* about The Dark Knight. There are no eye rolling moments, the sick humor is pinpoint precision, the drama is believable and engrossing, the directing style and cinematography is top-notch, the acting is of the highest caliber (even beyond Ledger’s magnetic performance), that crescendo-ing score is chair-arm gripping(!) and it certainly didn’t feel like 2 1/2 hours. Still, it just doesn’t hit that perfect note for me. I’m unable to put a finger on it exactly, but I think a huge part of it is the usual problem of high expectations. When I read review after review claiming it’s the best picture of the year (probably even by Academy standards) it’s difficult to keep expectations to a minimum; despite my general distaste of these types of summer blockbusters.
But if all superhero films follow in the footsteps of Mr. Nolan and The Dark Knight, I’ll be more inclined to visit more of them that are sure to come next summer.
* = actually, if you’re going to have William Fichtner in your movie, please have William Fichtner in your movie (same goes for Cillian Murphy)! Other small nit-picks to follow in an upcoming Cinecast I’m sure.
The arrival of The Dark Knight to movie screens the world over brings to an end months of discussion, speculation, and high expectations. With Batman Begins in 2005, director Christopher Nolan breathed new life into a franchise most pundits had written off as dead, and in so doing set the bar high for all sequels that were sure to follow. So, naturally, when a follow-up film was first announced, the buzz started circulating within seconds. Through the entire process of bringing The Dark Knight to life, people sat up and took notice, and the finished product, whether a success or failure, was destined to be one people would talk about.
Then, this past January, all discussions were ratcheted up to an even higher gear. Heath Ledger, the fine young actor who Nolan had cast to play Batman’s arch-enemy, The Joker, in The Dark Knight, was found dead in his hotel room. He had completed principal photography for his part as the clown prince of mayhem, meaning The Dark Knight, along with all the natural hype, was now also to be known as the film carrying Heath Ledger’s final (complete) on-screen performance. Suddenly, an already high-profile film got much, much higher.
And now, finally, The Dark Knight is out there; the tickets are selling, and the critics are speaking. What are they saying? Well, quite a lot, actually. Some have appointed The Dark Knight as not only the best Superhero film ever made, but also a possible Academy nominee for Best Picture. As for Ledger, he’s already been tapped by many for this year’s Best Supporting Actor class, which would mark his second and, tragically, last chance to win an Academy Award.
Is The Dark Knight really that good? Yes…absolutely. Was Ledger really that good? Again, the answer is absolutely. Does Ledger deserve an Academy Award nomination? Certainly…and yet, I can’t shake this feeling that, were he still alive, Ledger’s incredible performance in this film would most likely have been overlooked once nominations were announced. Films slated to be blockbusters right out of the gate rarely receive Academy recognition beyond a technical level. There are exceptions, of course (a recent one being Johnny Depp’s nomination for Best Actor in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film), but such exceptions are few and far between.
And to overlook Ledger’s contributions to The Dark Knight, under any circumstances, would be a damn shame.
Heath Ledger has reinvented the role, indeed the entire character of The Joker. In past incantations, The Joker was exactly what you’d expect a guy with white make-up on his face to be: a clown (a dangerous clown, surely, but a clown nonetheless). In The Dark Knight, The Joker may be a prankster, be he is certainly no clown. A prodigy of chaos, this Joker is nonetheless three steps ahead of his adversaries at every turn. He knows what’s going to transpire before the police do, before the D.A. does, even before Batman himself does. He wreaks havoc, and believes in nothing but total anarchy, yet possesses the intelligence to calculate every progression from point A to point Z, usually quite flawlessly.
I know what you’re thinking; that the screenwriters had more to do with the above than Ledger. True to a point, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the late actor’s contribution to the part. What struck me about Ledger’s Joker was that, despite the built-in flamboyance of the character, his overall performance seemed…restrained. Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that this Joker is anything but wildly insane, but when compared to what I expected from The Joker, from what I went in expecting from Ledger’s performance, I was genuinely surprised. Here was a character whose very nature had always demanded an over-the-top interpretation, yet Ledger not only shied away from such a performance; he made every other Joker (including Jack Nicholson’s in the first Batman film) seem pathetically circus-like by comparison. Whether addressing a gathering of mob bosses in a warehouse or socialites at Bruce Wayne’s luxury suite, Ledger’s Joker makes us smile as we squirm, laugh as we cringe. He is unhinged enough that we never know what to expect from him, yet never so much so that he is not in complete control at all times. The Dark Knight marks the first time that I was ever truly afraid of The Joker, and Heath Ledger must be given most of the credit for that.
Alas, it’s unavoidable that, should Ledger receive a nomination for his performance in The Dark Knight, there will be some who’ll call it a ‘mercy nomination’, that Ledger received such accolades simply because of his tragic death.
That would be an even greater shame. The Dark Knight is a tremendous film, and Heath Ledger is the glue that holds it all together.
What did YOU think of The Dark Knight?