dir: Christopher Nolan
We don't really have 'event' movies anymore. No movie, because of the sheer quantity of flicks that come out, and the quantity of other potential things a person can do (and might prefer to do) instead of going to the theatre, can come out and dominate the landscape like it could in the past.
The days of something completely massive in its level of public interest, a flick that gets everyone to watch it and everyone to talk about it, are pretty much gone. The last such flick, one that almost everyone worldwide went to see at the cinema, everyone talked about whether they saw it or not, and everyone just knew of its very existence was Titanic.
It’s why Titanic is the all time box office champion, and will continue to be until something magically compels people to go back to the theatres instead of watching flicks on their home theatre set-ups, computer screens or handheld devices.
What’s really lost is the uniting effect or power that movies can have. Everyone saw and had an opinion on Star Wars. Everyone knows the theme from Jaws. Everyone, down to your immigrant, non-English speaking parents, your one-eyed, one-legged beggars and three-breasted midget hookers recognised the awful Celine Dion theme from Titanic, and learned what happens when an irresistible force (a giant iceberg) meets an immovable object (audiences consisting mostly of teenage girls and middle-aged women happy to pay 12 times to see the same 3 hours-plus flick).
So when a perfect storm of factors, coincidences, marketing seem to coalesce to make a film look like one of those major Events Of The Year, something that people’s great-great-grandkids will be talking about like it’s the Wright Brothers taking their first flight all over again, it really doesn’t amount to that much down the track. No flick, whether it’s The Dark Knight or Kung Fu Panda, really matters that much anymore. Because, ultimately, it’s one of millions of such products, which will be on DVD in a couple of months, and five more films will be released the following week to help you forget you ever saw it, even if it was pretty good.
I thought Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would be the 'event' film of the year. And then I saw it. And then I realised how truly retarded I am for falling prey to this kind of thinking.
Heath Ledger’s death guaranteed, as it did with Brandon Lee’s death during the filming of The Crow, that oodles and oodles of free publicity would propel their respective flicks into the public consciousness far higher than they ever deserved to be. Beyond ghoulish or prurient interest, it’s hard to beat columns and columns of article inches and think pieces essentially promoting a film for half a year before it comes out.
When you layer on the marketing as well, the expansive advertising campaign and the very savvy decision to turn a compelling section of the film into virtually a short movie to be played before a successful hit like Will Smith’s I Am Legend, you’ve got something that guarantees bums on seats. Or at least bum’s bums in seats.
Then you’ve got willing, gullible journalists writing crap like “The buzz is that Heath Ledger could be up for an Oscar with his portrayal of the demonic Joker”, and it starts to turn you actively against the film. Of course “people” are “saying” that there’s Oscar “buzz”. You’re the ones saying it, dickheads, without even having seen the flick, based on the “buzz” generated by the studio’s PR machine.
For shame. Anyway, this counts as the longest preamble to a review that I’ve ever written. Why not preamble just a little more…
I didn’t really like Batman Begins that much, despite loving both Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan, and despite appreciating what they were trying to do. Mostly, the over-editing irritated me, and the mindless action sequences, and the mockworthy pretentious seriousness made me feel very ‘eh’ about the whole experience.
But that didn’t sour me going in to The Dark Knight. I was willing to believe again. Seeing that bank robbery prologue seven months ago whet my appetite enough before everything else happened so that I was excited about where this film could go.
So, considering what the film is actually like, I have to say that I am deeply, deeply satisfied with what I saw yesterday. The film is two and a half hours long, and crams about five hours of film into that running time. So much happens, and so quickly, that it is sometimes hard to keep track. But regardless of that, the film never lets up, never shies away from its grim premise and never gives you time enough to wonder how it is that it all works so well, for what it is.
Despite being as serious, if not more serious than Batman Begins, thankfully, no time is spent on Batman sulking over the death of his parents again. That’s not to say that the flick avoids getting into psychologically murky waters.
Oh, it gets very murky. Several years have past since Batman’s (Christian Bale) self-appointment as the dark guardian of Gotham City. The criminal organisations of the city are in retreat, and the citizens and law enforcement personnel almost feel like they can beat back the tide of corruption that threatened to engulf them.
A highly organised and disfigured maniac who dresses like a clown, wears smeared and cracked clown makeup and who calls himself the Joker (Heath Ledger) steals millions of dollars from a mob-run bank, capturing the attention of the city’s crime lords. He offers to take out their nemesis, the Man in Black, at a hefty price.
The Joker’s mission, though, has nothing to do with being a gun for hire. What he craves is causing chaos, and forcing the good citizens of Gotham to turn on each other.
When an idealistic and forthright District Attorney, in the form of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), finally seems to be making headway against both the criminal underworld and corruption within the city’s police and official ranks, the Joker’s intention becomes to show the world how no-one can ever be effective against the forces of chaos, and, in fact, can in turn easily be compelled to become agents of destruction themselves, no matter how high-minded they see themselves to be.
Naturally, this pisses off Batman, and his buffoonish billionaire playboy alter ego Bruce Wayne no end. In Harvey Dent, Wayne sees hope for the city; that finally there is a legitimate, legal personage who can do the things that Batman cannot, within the confines of the law. In fact, in Dent he sees someone who could literally replace him, and it brings him hope that maybe one day soon he could pursue some semblance of a normal life.
It only serves to complicate matters that Wayne’s childhood friend and love of his life Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is now Dent’s girlfriend and co-worker as his Assistant DA.
Dent is the shining white light, in contrast to the unrelenting darkness and misery that is Batman, but there are hints that there are limits to his goodwill. That there are aspects to his personality which potentially could compel him to cross the line, into adopting a more ends justifying the means mentality.
Knowing the importance of what Dent and the other city’s leaders, such as the police commissioner, his replacement Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the mayor represent, Batman is compelled to protect them at all costs, and the Joker intends to kill them in the most heinous ways possible. He seems to be a step ahead of anyone and everyone at all times only because he is so out there mentally that he can think up scenarios and plan out escapades that even super-genius Batman can't get ahead of, most of the time.
The greatest advantage the Joker possesses is that he is bound by no stricture, rule, concept of decency or morality, and that he delights in killing. Anyone and everyone. After a gruelling and frankly exhausting action sequence involving trucks, police vans, the Batmobile and rocket launchers, the Joker awaits the arrival of his nemesis standing in the middle of the street. As the hero rushes towards him, the Joker shoots and kills random people in cars purely out of impatience, because he just wants to be causing carnage in the ten or so seconds it would take for Batman to reach him.
Malevolence for malevolence’s sake is a standard in comic book fare, but it is hard to make it a compelling part of a dramatically told story. Ledger, for all the baggage surrounding his performance, is superb as the Joker. He is a fully realised, compelling, and quite frightening character. He is more scarily intelligent that his opposition, and fears nothing and desires little more beyond chaos for chaos’s sake.
Of course it’s a part that lends itself to painful overacting, as Jack Nicholson showed when he assayed the character in Tim Burton’s Batman back in 1989. Ledger far surpasses any other depiction of the character, but does it without resorting to Al Pacino-style screaming excesses or Hannibal Lecter-style scenery and face-chewing.
The character is always the most compelling when he is speaking quietly to people, compulsively licking his lips, and saying a whole heap of stuff that has his victims and potential victims equal parts terrified and wondering what the fuck he’s talking about.
But the character is still bigger than big. The fucked-up appearance and physicality, totally in-line with the comic book origins, always remain strange but never camp. As ridiculous as he might be, is he any more ridiculous than a guy who dresses up as a bat and barks at people in a voice that sounds like Tom Waits after a whisky and Draino binge?
This Joker sets up events that force Batman, and eventually, the people of Gotham, to make choices. Hard choices. The kinds of choices that represent a zero-sum game.
I remember way back when I watched the first Spider-Man flick at the cinema, which, whilst enjoyable, seems like a Saturday morning cartoon compared to this stuff. Towards the end of the flick the villain, played by Willem Dafoe, created a situation where he held a cable car of innocents in peril on the one hand, and Spidey’s beloved Mary Jane screaming in the other. He strove to create a situation where the hero had to choose who to save. One or the other.
In that flick, of course, the hero saves the day for everyone concerned with no repercussions. In stark contrast to the world in this Batman’s Gotham, choices have consequences. Grave consequences with no easy solutions.
That element alone elevates the material beyond the other comic book fare that has graced our screens this year, but it’s not even the only element. The action sequences have also been planned, carried out and executed to the nth degree, and also edited to within a microsecond of their lives. The editing, which ended up irritating the hell out of me in Batman Begins, just stays on the right side of the divide between getting the adrenalin pumping, and sending your audience members into epileptic shock.
The editing for such a construction has to be tight, since there’s so much to cram in into those two and a half hours, and you get the feeling that they didn’t want the audience to feel safe for even a few seconds. Everything, everything that happens in this flick is meant to keep us on edge and almost screaming with frustration with what’s going to happen next.
So much goes on that audiences could perhaps be forgiven for wondering what the fuck is going on at some points. The flick doesn’t make the mistake that other flicks make of overexplaining their own plots, but so much is happening simultaneously, with so many quality actors getting sufficient air time, that perhaps a brief time out to collect our thoughts could have been in order.
Bale is strong both as Bruce Wayne and as the dark avenger, but he isn’t entirely a sympathetic character. He is distant and monstrous as the Batman, and much of his time out of costume involves the film’s brief moments of levity as he either plays up to his image as a vapid socialite, or exchanges knowing moments of self-deprecation with his butler Alfred (Michael Caine, solid as always), the CEO of his company and armourer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), or complicated, messy moments with Rachel.
He is, and should be, a conflicted character. But the beauty of this story, having as it does its origins in decades of the comic, is how much of a mirror Batman and the Joker are for each other; how intertwined their personas and their agendas. At one point, when the Joker informs Batman that their conflict will never end, and that they will be fighting it out for eternity, I actually felt a certain amount of Batman’s dread. You can look at it as a meta moment, referring as it does to their conflict across the pages of thousands of comic books and the various media incarnations of the story, but it points most strongly to the fact that the Joker is Batman’s primary nemesis for a host of good reasons. They’re both insane. Ledger captures this beautifully throughout the whole film, and it is certain that without him the flick wouldn’t be remotely as powerful.
I don’t really see the point of belabouring Ledger’s contribution or his death here, like so many reviews seem to be doing. He was an actor I liked a lot, who gave some crappy performances but a few good ones as well. Having a performance like this as your swansong is an honour few actors get to enjoy as part of their legacy. At least this way you don’t live long enough to turn into a parody of yourself like Marlon Brando, Woody Allen, Al Pacino or Dakota Fanning. Which is a very good thing.
The soundtrack varies from pulse-pounding, headache-inducing martial percussion and orchestral themes whose purpose is to force you never to forget that bad shit is about to happen. But it’s a testament to the attention to detail in this whole production that the Joker’s signature theme involves a single, jagged cello note played like a nail across a blackboard or a dagger scraped along a bone. It is as unsettling as the character, and works beautifully, as the music does throughout. I guess. I mean it was pretty over the top, but the phrase ‘over the top’ seems superfluous in describing any aspect of this flick.
The most amazing sequences, in a flick filled with amazing sequences, include the robbery at the start, a drug deal crashed by Batman and people who wish they were Batman, the Joker introducing himself to the underworld with a pencil, Harvey Dent wondering how far he can take something (before and after, coin-toss or no coin-toss), the whole protecting-the-DA sequence, seeing as it places the Batman on a motorbike, the destruction of a hospital, the race to save two people at opposite ends of the city, the Joker’s interrogation, the burning of a billion dollars, the Joker relating multiple versions of the origin of his hideous scarring, Harvey Dent’s changing his mind, the words of the tall jailbird before his fateful decision on a ferry and and and…
I could potentially keep writing this review endlessly, as endlessly as the referred-to conflict between the forces of order and the forces of chaos, but it would just distract from explaining why I think this is probably the big budget film of the year. Sure the film is grim, and macabre, and tells a dreadful and depressingly malign tale regarding human nature. And just how nasty the flick truly is, is obscured somewhat by the shortcuts and editing tricks the maker’s use to keep the film from getting a higher MPAA rating. Batman dropping a mobster from a height intended to maim but not kill him is only one of many moments of cruelty that punctuate a very dark tale.
The movie shifts whilst on its seemingly unending roll, and the Joker moves from using insane henchmen from Arkham Asylum, to forcing the good citizens of Gotham to do his dirty work in order to prove his point; that, to quote the Nick Cave song, People They Ain’t No Good. Even then there is a ray of hope provided to us the viewers, and it comes from the unlikeliest source, being a prisoner trapped in one of the Joker’s malicious plans. Batman can only keep fighting the good fight as long as there are enough of the regular people of Gotham who choose not to give in to the more selfish part of their nature, no matter the incentives. Even when it’s the criminals making the moral choices.
I’m not even going to get started on the terrorism, torture and other contemporary subtexts within the flick, because there’s just too much, too much going on. It’s probably a flick, despite its running length, that needs to be seen a couple of times, preferably on the big screen, and at least one of those times at an IMAX cinema, since several of the action sequences were filmed specifically for the ginormous format.
Visually, dialogue-wise, acting-wise, action-wise, dramatically and intellectually, The Dark Knight delivers on its promises, and is a stunner. It is probably one of the best films of the year, and definitely insofar as big-budget extravaganzas are concerned. Nothing with a budget over 100 million dollars is going to be this complex and rewarding, not this year, pal.
It has flaws, in that technology is introduced and abused in a manner that stretches believability, and perhaps too much is crammed in, with everyone having too much to do, and much of it is unclear, to the point where you wonder ‘so what happened to so-and-so?’ and the ending, though satisfying, was somewhat anti-climactic. But I’d rather that than the alternative, which is people having nothing to do but repeat hackneyed phrases and collect paycheques they don’t deserve, and a stupid ending requiring a last second recovery and a villain’s headquarters or just some random building blowing up for no valid reason.
Good work everyone, especially you, Christopher Nolan. A meticulously crafted action masterpiece, and one of the few that transcends its comic book origins to become something greater, mythic and powerful. Keep up the good work.
9 times that the exclamation ‘wow’ doesn’t quite encompass how I felt at certain points out of 10
“You crossed the line first, sir. You hammered them. And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn't fully understand. Some men aren't looking for anything logical. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” – I think I used to share a house with the guys he’s talking about, The Dark Knight.