Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Movie Review: "The Dark Knight"

"The Dark Knight" or, "A Very Long Derangement"
(with apologies to
Audrey Tautou)

After raking in the record-breaking number of $158 million during its opening weekend, “The Dark Knight” has burst into theaters nationwide and taken them by storm. I was among the enthusiastic throngs on opening day, though the Cine-Sib beat me to the theater (touchĂ©). So did the Batman sequel live up to the ludicrous amount of pre-release hype, hoopla, and hullabaloo? Sort of – more yes than no, but not yes entirely. Buckle in for a big fat nerd review and commentary.

I initially walked out of the theater with a lukewarm response. The film is not a “feel-good” film, and its ending is wrapped in grim shadows both physical and metaphorical. The content of the movie, compounded with its length of two and a half hours, made me tired both physically and mentally. The thing is, in places, a grim grind that’s excruciating if not outright oppressive. I should also tell you right now that this movie should be rated R for relentless graphic violence. There were moments when I wondered if director Chris Nolan was trying to be as gruesome as possible for the sake of being as gruesome as possible, and he wouldn’t be the first moviemaker to mistake butchery for profundity. This is NOT a movie for children or the faint of heart. This is not a movie for those wanting a little playful adventure. This is a movie for grownups—grownups who can stand being rattled. Murder, mutilation, maiming, madness – they’re all on the menu. Add a bleak color palette and interior settings that are deliberately cold and impersonal, and you have a movie that shuns comfort on purpose. It’s consciously unsettling. (The best example could be the Wayne penthouse. Though it’s home for Bruce Wayne, it’s as cold as a furniture catalog, and to reinforce the idea that there is no rest or comfort to be had for anybody, Alfred finds the bed unslept in. On top of that, it’s said to be the safest place in the city, but it proves not to be . . . in spectacular fashion.) The entire movie is like this.

Still, the more I thought about the movie – as opposed to feeling about it – the more I appreciated its finer points. There is still much I don’t like about it, and I’m not going to gush, “Oscars for everybody – This is the best movie EVER!” because I honestly don’t think it is. It’s not a flawless masterpiece, it’s not the fanboy-hailed pinnacle of cinema, and it’s not significantly better than “Batman Begins.” But “The Dark Knight” is a movie that’s worth your while. It’s not a “fun” film, but it has some interesting things to say as it turns the comic book movie into a taut, gritty urban psychological thriller. (As for the urban part, I’d always thought Gotham was a fantasy-fiction version of New York, but here Gotham looks a lot like Chicago… “Chicagotham”?)

The film ostensibly revolves on the pivot of Batman-versus-Joker, but it depends on its ensemble cast as a whole. Nearly all the core characters from 2005’s “Batman Begins” reprise their roles (the happy exception is the replacement of Katie Holmes by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes). Reliable veteran actors Morgan Freeman (equipment master Lucius Fox), Gary Oldman (police lieutenant Gordon) and Michael Caine (butler Alfred Pennyworth) are all impeccable, and I wished that they had more to do. Even so, Alfred plays a subtly critical role, and once more I thank the theater gods that Michael Caine was cast to play him. Oldman has a bit more screen time and a plot twist; his understated performance is both delicately nuanced and robustly fleshed out: Gordon is a fully rounded character.

As for the principles: Christian Bale (elegantly dashing as Bruce Wayne in his billionaire-playboy persona, broodingly morose under his Batman cowl) returns as the complex Bruce/Batman figure, though I did find his affected Batman voice, a grating, guttural growl, to be distracting after a while. Is he talking or coughing up hairballs? Somebody give the man a drink of water, please! Aaron Eckhart’s crime-fighting district attorney Harvey Dent is a man as charismatic and likeable to the public as Batman is frightening and even alienating. This dichotomy, and the complicated relationship between Dent and Wayne/Batman, becomes crucial as a consequence of the most talked-about character in the film: the Joker (remarkably portrayed by the late Heath Ledger), the demonic madman who redefines the comic book villain as a nightmarish embodiment of deep human fears. At one point he openly declares, “I am an agent of chaos,” and his lack of a back story (even when he explains his mutilated face, he spins a different tale every time) makes him much archetype as criminal. His increasingly nauseating clown-mask of smeared, oozing greasepaint reflects his crazy desire to plunge the world into madness—and laugh at the mayhem. The Joker pushes the limits of humanity, and he’s like a bipedal gila monster, a disgusting, venomous, yet weirdly mesmerizing creature right down to the reptilian flicking tongue. What humor there is in him (and there is) is born from a sick, creative malevolence: you’ll never look at a nurse’s uniform or a pencil the same way again.

The Joker, seen in counterpoint both with Dent and Batman, opens the film’s wider discussion of human evil and the fighting of it. I’ll just skim over some thoughts, because the Cine-Sib’s already laughing at me for being too nerdy in analysis:

~Different kinds of evil. Eric Roberts and his mobsters form one kind, the kind that the Gotham authorities (and even Batman) is used to fighting. As brutal and dangerous as they are, they nevertheless have a certain predictability and basis of rational behavior. They and the authorities live in the same world. The Joker doesn’t behave in the same way; he brings panic, disorder, and death even to other criminals. He lives in his own lunatic universe. The unmistakable corollary is the idea that you can’t handle the Joker in the same way that you handle reasonable criminals.

~Motivation. We could indulge in endless speculation and psychoanalysis about the Joker and why he does what he does (should we put him in therapy? should we throw him in Arkham Asylum and throw away the key? is he evil or just misunderstood?)…but in the end, he’s inscrutable and largely incomprehensible – which makes him all the more terrifying. On the other hand, note Dent’s drive to clean up Gotham and Batman’s own complicated reasons. What makes Bruce Wayne tick?

~Escalation and fighting back. This idea appeared at the end of “Batman Begins”: what happens when you fight back against the criminal? When he retaliates? (Still, the whole thing may be best worded by Sean Connery in “The Untouchables” – Film fans, you know what I’m talking about). I also suppose that some people regard the prospect of escalation and the fear of blowback as reasons not to fight back forcefully. So then what? Not fight back at all? That makes even less sense.

The argument that Batman somehow “created” the Joker doesn’t convince me; the Joker focuses his malignance on Batman out of a twisted fascination with him (watch for a famous romantic movie line reworked as creepy fixation), but Batman did not “make” the Joker, only serve as lightning rod for his rage. And if Batman does not fight the Joker, who effectively can even if Batman is criticized and even demonized for fighting back? (digression: hm, this seems to have a certain geopolitical resonance these days). The Joker claims he will stop his murderous spree once he has Batman’s identity (and therefore Batman himself). For a nanosecond, this might sound like a solution, but it’s actually desperate appeasement, and you’d be a fool to believe that someone as deranged as the Joker will keep his word. Besides, if Batman is out of the picture, who will stand against the Joker then? What’s to stop the demon clown from holding bloody unchallenged sway over all Gotham, killing whimsically whenever he pleases?

Meanwhile, the Joker’s campaign of terror (because that’s exactly what it is, and it’s designed to crush Gotham) rolls on, complete with abducted civilians and videotapes. Eventually, this rattles even Bruce Wayne, who has a stunning scene with Alfred. (Spoiler alert until the end of this paragraph.) The pressure is on, and the Joker-caused body count is mounting even as Batman is trying to defend Gotham; public opinion has turned ugly, and Batman himself is weary and discouraged. “What can I do?” he asks Alfred. Is this flash of personal pain meant as a rhetorical question? Is Wayne actually contemplating, even for a moment, the idea of giving in? Alfred’s quiet, eloquent answer is one of the pivotal lines in the movie. What can you do? “Endure,” Alfred says simply. In that scene, he went from proper, starchy British butler to flat-out, awesome, breathtaking hero in his own right. That line is worth ten action sequences.

~Best line of the movie with implications about the limits of soft power: “We burned the forest down.” I’ll leave it at that. Let the Greenies howl if they want to, but this line’s worth another ten action sequences, even if they involve overturning 18-wheelers in all the cinematic sound and fury Nolan can muster.

~The Individual. Think on this: the Joker and Batman wage their own personal, titanic struggle. But the Joker’s acts reverberate on a small individual scale also: he insists that if normal, civilized people are pushed hard enough, “they’ll eat each other – I’ll show you.” The struggle between right and wrong isn’t only about superheroes and supervillains; it’s also about normal, flawed people’s choices and decisions. Take a look at the (I confess) awesome scene of two ferries and one convict’s solution.

~The Unheroic Hero. One of the very good features of the movie is that it portrays the struggle against the Joker’s nihilistic chaos as a dirty, messy, grim business – and that’s a bit closer to reality. There’s Batman. In an ideal world, there’d be no Batman because Gotham wouldn’t need him. But it’s not an ideal world even if it’s a fictional one, and Batman exists even if some Gothamites turn against him. But that fact doesn’t negate the other fact that Batman is the hero that Gotham needs, even if he’s not the hero that it wants – or thinks it wants. Dent is the hero that Gotham wants, cheers, and loves, but this turns out to be . . . problematic.

(Spoiler alert until the end of this paragraph.) Batman in the final analysis fights on, and he chooses to do so even though he knows that he is shouldering not only the full misery of the fight but also the disregard, calumny, and even contempt of the people he’s trying to protect. There’s not only no fanfare; there’s actual antipathy. He could just walk away. He could just rebuild Wayne mansion, install a nice panic room (and stock it with champagne and supermodels), leave Gotham to its own devices, and call it a day as he holes up in his plush personal fortress. But there’s no isolationism in him; he chooses to carry on the fight. The idea of doing what’s right instead of what’s easy – of doing what’s right even if it’s hard and thankless and basically guaranteed to cause more personal pain . . . Now that’s pretty darn heroic, even if it’s also grim. It’s also a great meditation on actual heroism. At the same time, I found one related idea to be not just disturbing, but perverse: one either dies a hero or lives long enough to turn into a villain? What kind of total cynicism and moral debasement is THAT?

Overall, the film has many praiseworthy features, but my criticisms of “The Dark Knight” are not few, and some of the film’s flaws are significant. For one thing, the film isn't streamlined enough and so it's too long. A good half-hour or more could have been trimmed overall, and the final half-hour or so of the film feels like a drag. Nolan felt compelled to include things that were not crucial to the plot of this film, and even if those things had value in themselves, there should have been a harsher hand in choosing. Frankly, some of the length problem goes back to the violence. Perhaps these violent pleasures have violent ends, but if there's so much unrelenting brutality and outright sadism that the film beats the audience senseless, there's not much pleasure in that either.

In terms of the overlong story, I thought the entire Hong Kong digression was unnecessary. Yes, yes, it’s cool to see Batman flying over the HK cityscape, fighting HK mobsters, and confusing HK cops, but how much of this was strictly necessary? Also, for me, taking the story out of Gotham diluted it (the core is the struggle for and in GOTHAM), as well as inserted the idea that Nolan suffered from a bit of James Bond envy – and maybe Jet Li/Jackie Chan/Asian action flick envy too. Playing with genres is fine and good (crime drama, psychological thriller, comic book, etc.), but on this point, it didn’t work so well. The sheer “wow” factor of the flying Batman isn’t enough justification. And anyway the entire subplot of the Asian mob ties fizzles out in the end and doesn’t give the film a payoff worthy of all that investment.

I still have complaints about the Rachel Dawes character. Maggie Gyllenhaal is better than Katie Holmes (though this itself isn’t much of a recommendation), but the character itself seemed flat to me. Rachel is supposed to be virtually the one flash of life and color in grim Gotham; she’s supposed to be the woman beloved of Gotham’s most eligible bachelors, Dent and Wayne. Heck, Bruce is pinning on her his entire hope for a normal life in the future – shouldn’t she be a warm, engaging person? She isn’t, really, and there’s no chemistry with either of her admirers. She seems stronger here than in “Batman Begins,” but she lacks the spark that would make her character someone you really cared about – and this lack makes a later pivotal plot point seem less powerful. Look, you don’t have to have a huge part in order to show sparkle and personality even if technically you’re “only” the prerequisite comic book girl: just look at Gwyneth Paltrow’s delightfully understated yet punchy turn as Pepper Potts.

Cillian Murphy returns as the Scarecrow for a cameo, but he’s completely wasted. We’ve seen how effectively creepy the angular Murphy can be in “Batman Begins,” but his appearance here is a throwaway scene. It doesn’t play to his strengths at all, and in fact the scene itself is a muddled mess that doesn’t convey much other than give Bale a chance to quip about hockey pants while giving Nolan a chance to shoot an action-ish scene that looks like he shot it, threw it into a paper shredder, and then tried to put it back together again in the dark. Both the scene and cameo lack real punch and substance, and it shouldn’t have, not with the Scarecrow involved. I’ll tell you what it should have felt like: the opening sequence with its performance by the unnamed bank manager. (Also, brownie points if you can identify the excellent and ubiquitous character actor who played the banker. No fair IMDB'ing.)

Finally, I have to point out the Plot Hole So Big You Can Drive the Batmobile Through It. This is a SPOILER, so don’t read this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film. Nolan spent a lot of time and effort planning out the huge evening party that Wayne throws for Dent in the Wayne penthouse. When the Joker and his goons crash the party, I was excited and waiting for a huge action/narrative sequence and Batman-Joker throwdown, the first real encounter between these two. The Joker shows up in spectacular fashion with a pack of masked thugs, and Wayne slips off to don the Batsuit while the demon clown menaces the guests. When Batman appears, the Joker tosses Rachel Dawes out the window (after my previous complaint about her, I can’t say that I blame him), and I’m thinking, that’s a good start – Batman will save the girl and then crash back into the penthouse and rip into the Joker, and we’ll get a great action sequence. I was only half right. Batman does indeed hurl himself out the window to save Rachel, and it ends with the two of them atop a crumpled car that broke their fall. They heave a sign of relief . . . AND THEN THE SEQUENCE ABRUPTLY ENDS.

The next scene shows Alfred and Bruce alone in the sunlit penthouse at some later date! I was disoriented – and then absolutely livid. This was a cheat horribly like the finale of “The Sopranos.” Nolan has Batman save the girl, but he leaves the Joker, the guests, and his responsibility to the audience back at the top-floor party! What happened after Rachel and Batman go out the window? The Joker’s still back there! I’m sure the Joker didn’t just indulge in a few canapĂ©s, sip a flute of champagne, and then quietly leave. He had burst into the party proclaiming, “We’re tonight’s entertainment!” He would have at least left the premises memorably, wouldn’t he? Remember how he left his meeting with the mob bosses? Shades of Conrad’s bomb-clutching Anarchist all over that. But here, in a much more important scene, we get none of that kind of detail. Nolan seems to think that the only thing that matters is saving Rachel – forget about everything else! There’s ZERO FOLLOW-THROUGH HERE on the gatecrashing, knife-wielding Joker, the development of Harvey Dent (how does the DA respond to the Joker’s chaotic brand of evil? We don’t know here!), or the relationship between Dent and Wayne which was the ostensible reason for the party in the first place. Nolan built up the scene like a towering sculpture of artful cake, only to drop it on the floor and then fall face first into it. Shameful.

Still, in the end, there is a solid core to “The Dark Knight.” Take away all the cool tech, the explosions, and the hype, and that core remains. It’s rare to have a movie of any type these days that has a solid center – or any substance at all – so it’s a cause for enthusiastic viewing when one does appear, even if its flaws are many and obvious. Go see “The Dark Knight” – but prepare to be rattled, and prepare to do some thinking.

Mad Minerva gives this film a grade of B+. You can see the Cine-Sib's fanboy-happy review here also.

“The Dark Knight” runs for two and a half hours and is rated PG-13 for action, violence, and some frightening images. (It should be rated R, IMHO).

RottenTomatoes gives “The Dark Knight” the remarkable score of 95%.

UPDATE: Commenters Greg and Christian Toto have posted their own respective reviews. Do take a look.


Anonymous said...

Very good review, I must say. For the most part, I agree with you, especially on some of the weaknesses of the film, though I didn't have a problem with the length so much as the poor use of some of the scenes, as you mentioned.

I do believe that Ledger's acting is exceedingly Oscar worthy. It was absolutely amazing to watch him because nothing he had done before suggested that he had the range to make that character work so well as he did. There is no question that he dominated every scene he was in.

By the way, Gotham looks like Chicago because it is Chicago ;-)

Oh, and my review is up, too. And you should check out a friend of mine's as well.

Toto said...

Wow .. a more in depth review than you'll find in most places.

I loved the film but I agree with many of your criticisms.

The point about blowback/escalation fascinates me. It's like a superhero movie with, dare I say, a conservative message, but no one behind the movie is talking up that point. If good doesn't fight back against evil, what's plan B? or even Plan C?

And nice comparison between Rachel and Pepper Potts. The latter has a smaller role but much more chemistry with her hero.

Mad Minerva said...

Thanks, gentlemen! I've now linked to both your own reviews.