July 20, 2008

Movie Review: The Dark Knight

I remember 1989. I remember anxiously looking forward to Batman. I was not into movies as much then as I am now, but I do remember that I could not wait to see Batman on the big screen. I knew it was Tim Burton and he had already impressed me with Beetlejuice, but I was wondering about Michael Keaton. I did not see him in the cape and cowl. Anyway, the movie proceeded to greatly impress me. Of course, the series went downhill from there, ending with the goofily awful Batman & Robin. That movie seemed to kill the franchise, but then 2004 happened.

Christopher Nolan, director of the magnificent Memento, signed on along with Davd S. Goyer to reinvigorate the franchise from the ground up. That collaboration resulted in the finest Batman film to date, Batman Begins. In no way did I think that feat would be beaten, the most I dared hope for was a movie that approached matching its accomplishment, then The Dark Knight happened. Not only has Batman Begins been surpassed, as good as it is, that film has been completely blown out of the water by The Dark Knight. Not only has it instantly become a high water mark for Batman films, it could prove to be a film that helps redefine the idea of what a superhero film can be. I know that is no small praise and only time will tell how ultimately deserving it is, but when basking in the afterglow the praise does not seem to reach the same heights that the film climbed.

The Dark Knight is a complex film. It does not offer up any easy answers, rather it adds layer upon layer of depth. The characters grow, breathe, change, develop, and become more than mere characters. All of the primary players take on important roles in a play that reaches Shakespearean heights, as they are forced to make more difficult decisions than they had ever had to make in their lives. Bruce Wayne is faced with the moral dilemma that being Batman brings, his responsibilities to himself, to Gotham, and his place within the crime fighting hierarchy. The Joker introduces all manner of new situations, causing chaos as he goes, fading into and out of the darkness. Harvey Dent deals with becoming the new public figure for fighting crime, and the direct line of danger that it puts him and his loved ones in. On top of having to make those decisions, the script develops in a way that keeps you guessing just what direction they are going to go.

As far as the plot goes, The Joker has been making some hits on Mob controlled banks. This brings the various criminal organizations together in the hopes of finding a way to protect their investments. This becomes an open invitation, unwanted as it may be, for The Joker to come in and spread his brand of insanity. This eventually makes Batman, and all of the public crime fighting figures targets. What follows becomes a personal battle between the vigilante and the criminal, tortured souls both, who have chosen different outlets for their pain.

Sure, Mob money and masked heroes and villains may sound a little plain; it is anything but. There is a lot that goes on between many of the players, more than I can, or want, to get into here. This is a movie to slowly digest, to allow it to reveal its character implications over time. Creatively, it is a bold move making a film about heroes in masks and capes and villains in face paint such a cerebral affair. Don't be fooled, in addition to the character depth and development there is plenty of visceral excitement evenly spaced throughout. There are plenty of beautifully filmed explosions, exciting car chases, flying fists, and expertly staged set pieces to satisfy your inner action junkie.

By now, you have probably read your fill of praise for Heath Ledger's performance. Critics must be sounding like a broken record, and let me tell you, it is the praise being doled out is much deserved. Heath Ledger is a force of nature, he commands your attention, he draws you in with a maniacal charisma. You dare not look away lest he turn his sights on you. Christopher Nolan has likened Ledger's Joker to the shark in Jaws; it is an apt comparison. This film offers no insight into the origin of The Joker, the whos, wheres, and whys are all left out, all that matters is the here and the now. Sure, Joker does go into some of the reasons for doing what he is doing, but they are not presented in a way that reveals anything about his past, just the present.

The jaw dropping performance, the way he commands attention, the way Heath poured himself into this role, everything points towards Oscar for Heath Ledger. It is a career defining performance, one that would have definitively placed him on the Hollywood map. It is a sad situation that reminds me of Brandon Lee and his tragic death will filming The Crow, the film that ultimately defined his short career and would have helped him on his rise through Hollywood's ranks. Two actors delivering iconic performances who's lived were tragically cut short.

Not to be forgotten, Christian Bale turns in yet another strong performance. He is fast becoming the definitive Batman. He has the skills and the presence to portray the conflicted Bruce Wayne, the emotionally tortured soul whose very existence is a battle within himself. Not only can Bale portray the emotional gravitas, he is more than capable of delivering the fisticuffs.

The supporting cast does a great job adding more layers to the drama. Aaron Eckhart leads the charge as Harvey Dent, the new, take charge DA who is not afraid of putting himself in the line of fire, although he too is a conflicted soul waiting for a push in the right direction. Then there is Maggie Gyllenhaal steps into the role of Rachel Dawes, vacated by Katie Holmes, and delivers. She carries a lot of emotional weight with ease. Not to be left out are the returning players from the first film, Michael Caine as Alfred, who is always ready with words of wisdom as well as possessing the wisdom to know when to deal with certain items (you will see in the film), Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon in a performance that gets you personally involved, and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Bruce Wayne's chief gadget maker and confidant.

Leading the way is director Christopher Nolan, who also co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan Nolan (with whom he also collaborated on The Prestige). This is a director who has finally honed his craft and risen to the top in a very shor period of time. He is a true artist who puts everything into the films he makes, believing in them fully and having a clear and specific vision of what he wants to accomplish. As good as his prior films have been, this is the finest work of his young career.

Now, you will remember how I mentioned earlier about The Dark Knight being a redefining moment for superhero cinema, I believe this completely. Up until this point, it seems that by and large the primary concern in adapting the comic book source was to be true to the comic, the high water mark for this is, arguably, Spider-Man II (or perhaps Superman: The Movie, or fill in your favorite adaptation), this movie is different from that. Christopher Nolan does keep true to the integrity of the comic books, but he is inspired as much from the source as he is from the rest of cinema (going so far as to cite Heat as a major influence).

This is, in my eyes, a new direction, a blending of comic and real world influences resulting in a finished product that straddles the line and seems to be equally at home in either world. This is a world where criminal organizations grow, thrive, and operate similar to what you find in Heat or The Godfather, or take your pick of crime films, while at the same time you have characters in masks and face paint throwing their fractured psyches in their paths, disrupting business as they deliver these big speeches about their motives and decisions like you would find in the funny pages. Christopher Nolan had a definite vision when entering into this project, a vision that has created this defining moment.

Bottomline. I cannot recommend this movie enough. It is unrelentingly dark, but it is also emotionally involving as it takes you on a cerebral and visceral roller coaster through the darkened streets of Gotham. This is the finest film to reach the screens thus far this year, and one that actually deserves all of the praise it has received. From top to bottom, this is an amazing experience and one of the few summer blockbuster type films to work on this high an artistic level as opposed to just trying to deliver an enjoyable summer cinematic experience.

Highly Recommended.


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