The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight

Film review by: Witney Seibold



            In “Batman Begins,” one of the best films of 2005, director Christopher Nolan finally lent a degree of reality to the otherwise simplistic Batman origin story: It’s not merely that Bruce Wayne saw his parents get killed in front of him instilling an overdeveloped sense of justice, it was that his parents got killed I front of him, he became obsessed with thoughts of revenge, was foiled by a corrupt organized crime structure in Gotham City, traveled the world seeking nihilism and oblivion, was brought back to light by a mysterious martial artist, and returned to his family home with a newly found need and ability to undermine the rampant crime and moral emptiness he witnesses all around him.


            Yes, I used words like “nihilism,” “oblivion,” and “moral emptiness” in a review of a superhero film.


            Nolan has taken something that could be goofy (as in the 1966 movie), ultra-stylized (as in the 1989 movie, which I champion), or just plan bad (as in the 1997 movie), and, with photographer Wally Pfister, and co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, his brother, created a Batman that was poignant, hard-edged, and perhaps even real. This was not a Batman who FOUGHT CRIME out of plot requirement. It was about a man who had thoroughly examined concepts of justice, and used his own fears of death and chaos to infuse the underworld with the same fears.


            Audiences have now been given “The Dark Knight,” a film no less intellectual, and one that asks some even more serious questions. For instance, when faced with someone who is not just a mere criminal (i.e. someone who commits illegal acts to personally gain money and power), but someone who is longing for chaos to the very core of his mad being, how do you stop it? Can one fight nihilism with fear? The Joker in “The Dark Night” is no mere wackjob with makeup and a penchant for small potatoes like bank robberies. No this is a man who, in the words o one of the character, “just wants to watch the world burn.”


            The story: Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been doing such a good job of terrifying the underworld, hat they are on the brink of extinction. With the help of gadget man Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), his erstwhile butler/father figure Alfred (Michael Caine), and police lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Wayne has not only stopped the street-dwelling bagmen of Gotham’s mob, but has been able to track down the hidden money of the higher-ups (represented by Eric Roberts and others) and freeze it. He even goes to Hong Kong at one point to kidnap the mob’s accountant.


            Batman may be clearing the streets of crime, but the people of Gotham still don’t really trust him. It’s still no fun to be Batman.


            Wayne is on the outs with his onetime ladylove Rachael Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, lending some gravity to the role that Katie Holmes wasn’t really able to in “Begins”), but Rachel is happy in the arms of hotshot DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a man who, with his intuition and courage, is poised to actually prosecute many of the mob bosses without intimidation.



            The monkeywrench in this machine is, of course, The Joker (Heath Ledger), a man who has been robbing from the mob, setting up assassinations, and blowing up buildings for his own unknown purposes. Eventually his little games escalate to the point were Batman has been implicated in many crimes, the mob has been brought to its knees, Dent has been mocked and tempted to the brink of madness, and The Joker has been tempting people to kill others to save themselves. The Joker is like a slightly less evil version of Alex DeLarge from “A Clockwork Orange.” Selfish, unreachable, fully intent on carrying out his wicked agenda. Although where Alex was so fully commanded by his wicked appetites that he wasn’t even capable of self-reflection, The Joker has a slightly more thoughtful motive behind his actions. Although the “some people just want to watch the world burn” line sums it up pretty well.



            How does society deal with evil? Can such people be dealt with in any sort of just way? How can one retain hope, when madness (your own and others’) is so close? What lengths must you go to in order to stop such a juggernaut of resolution? Can altruism stand in the face of the depths of human cruelty? In “The Dark Knight,” these questions don’t feel merely academic. The film has been so beautiful, smart, and engaging that we, the audience can sense the horrifying moral ambivalence.


            In addition to asking some of the hard questions, “The Dark Knight” is undeniably cool. There’s a car chase sequence in the middle that had people cheering in my theater, and a set piece at the end (where The Joker has asked one boatload of people to blow up a second boatload of people before he blows them both up) which, while dark and evil, has a fun “Twilight Zone” quality to it.


            So, yes, all the positive reviews you’ve read are true. “The Dark Knight” is a complicated, smart, gorgeous film. Yes, the performances are all great, especially Eckhart as a moral man who ends up flipping, and Ledger does capture the greasy smarminess of an unflappable bully. Freeman plays the part of Bruce Wayne’s conscience that feels he’s been going too far (he objects to one of Batman’s spying techniques), and Caine, always a pleasure, is the half of Wayne’s conscience that feels he’s not going quite far enough.


            Here’s the part where I offer criticisms. I assure you, this is not backlash to the film’s popularity (it’s been postulated that “The Dark Knight” will be more popular than “Titanic.” It won’t. It’s also already been overenthusiastically called the #1 best film of all time on the Internet Movie Database. But then, that’s an audience who also called the first part of “The Lord of the Rings” #1 at one point. They’re mostly eager fanboys).


            Nolan, who directed such chronologically playful films like “The Prestige” and “Memento” seems kind of unfortunately stuck on non-linear storytelling. Even “Batman Begins” was told partly out-of-order. “The Dark Knight” is as straightforward a narrative he’s ever done, but he still felt the need to throw in a few flashbacks and flash-forwards to keep us on our toes. Many of these tricks are mere gimmicks, and do not enhance the story; indeed they are distracting.


            The film already runs 152 minutes, and even at that length, a lot of small narrative details have been left out. In one scene, a character is (perhaps) killed, but we’re not given too many visual clues it happened. Then said character returns, and it feels less like a triumphant return, and more like a mild jerk-around. Even worse, a pair of characters is abducted late in the film, and we don’t see it happen at all. They’re getting safely into a car in one scene, with no portents, and in the next, they are being held hostage.


            The film is action-packed, and features a lot of really impressive set pieces, which means Bale spends a lot of time in the bat suit. Which means that we don’t get enough time with Bruce Wayne. The most interesting thing about “Batman Begins” was the analysis of the man inside the rubber armor. This film spends more time analyzing its villains and supporting cast, leaving our main character kind of high-and-dry in the reflection department. 


            Much has been made of the late Ledger’s performance. Yes, it is great. The man is chameleonic. I saw “Casanova” and “Brokeback Mountain” in the same weekend back in 2005, and was convinced of the man’s range. Indeed, comparisons to Johnny Depp are apt. Perhaps even a few likenesses to Iago are in order (he gives several explanations for the “Man Who Laughs” smile scars on his cheeks, none of which are the truth). However, I urge the fanboys calling it one of the best performances of all cinema to calm down a bit.


            In short: “The Dark Knight” is great, and manages to transcend most of the bubblegum superhero flicks of the day. It may be one of the best films of 2008. But I still think “Batman Begins” is the better film.


Published in: on August 5, 2008 at 8:23 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I completely agree. If anyone goes up for an award, it should be Eckhardt. He was the soul of the movie, really. And I loved the movie, but he was the surprise. And, there really was a lot of strange exposition moments with The Joker that took me right out of the movie.

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