Combustible Celluloid
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With: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Monique Curnen, Ron Dean, Cillian Murphy, Chin Han, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts, Ritchie Coster, Anthony Michael Hall, Keith Szarabajka, Colin McFarlane, Joshua Harto, Melinda McGraw, Nathan Gamble, Michael Vieau, William Fichtner
Written by: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, based on a story by Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace
Running Time: 152
Date: 07/13/2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Tactical Joke

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Well, paint me green and purple and call me a playing card, I LOVED The Dark Knight. I was mostly disappointed by Christopher Nolan's 2005 reboot Batman Begins, with its junky, shaky camerawork, a third act made up of explosions, fireballs and special effects, excessive length and other plot problems. But although The Dark Knight runs even longer, it looks much better, takes its time fleshing out the characters, and never loses sight of them in favor of spectacle. It's unbelievably dark and uncompromised; it's the film noir we deserve for our terrifying 21st century.

I hasten to add that it's the finest of the Batman films to date, one of the two or three greatest superhero movies to date, and almost certainly one of the year's best films.

Christian Bale stars for the second time as Bruce Wayne and Batman, and though he's the title character, he's basically one member of a fascinating ensemble cast. His work fighting crime hasn't exactly rid the city of criminals. In fact, they've become more numerous -- and more sadistic. "It's always darkest just before the dawn," someone reminds him, suggesting that things can always get better. Bruce finds hope in Gotham City's new District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), whose suit-and-tie crusading has lately put away more criminals than even the Caped Crusader.

Bruce dares to dream about passing the mantle to this new hero, retiring, and hopefully winning back his true love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes). Unfortunately, Rachel, the assistant D.A., is now seeing Harvey. More trouble arises when the Joker (Heath Ledger) appears on the scene and begins targeting judges, cops and other high-ranking officials. He also makes his services available to a cartel of mob bosses -- the most prominent of which is played by Eric Roberts -- offering to help retrieve their missing money. And so it goes, with Bruce's butler Alfred (Michael Caine), the newly appointed Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and the others, chiming in.

Late in the game, near the two-hour mark, Harvey Dent becomes another famous Batman baddie, Two-Face. If you thought Tommy Lee Jones was effective playing that character in Batman Forever (1995), wait till you see this. Finally, every Batman has to have some kind of cult actor cast somewhere, and here (besides Roberts) we get Nestor Carbonell, better known as "Batmanuel" on the great, short-lived TV series "The Tick."

The screening I saw of The Dark Knight took place in an IMAX theater, where external, establishing scenes filled up the entire giant screen. But most of the regular action and dialogue fills a normal, widescreen picture. I'm not exactly sure how these all-encompassing shots will be replaced in a normal theater and -- not to mention DVD and Blu-Ray -- but they looked spectacular and much, clearer and sharper than in Batman Begins.

This time, though the shots are chaotic, Nolan has learned what Paul Greengrass already knew: that as long as you establish certain physical elements, like space, time and weight, you can keep the action coherent in the audiences' mind even if it's not precisely clear on the screen. Batman's fights are furious and brutal and not particularly exciting. Dispatching baddies here feels more like anger than pleasure, like swatting a mosquito that has been buzzing around too long and too loudly. The entire picture feels desperate and outnumbered, and even when Batman utilizes a secret sonar spying device to stop his enemies, it feels like cheating (Lucius Fox threatens to quit over its use).

Editor Lee Smith (The Truman Show, Master and Commander, The Prestige, etc.) deserves serious credit for some truly innovative work, juggling these multiple characters and storylines. At any given moment, two or three tense moments occur at once and Smith gives them to us, not climaxing at the same time, but building at different speeds, purposely uneven and off-kilter, building dread and suspense in more unexpected directions. (It makes sense, given the preoccupation with time in Nolan's first two films Following and Memento.)

And co-composers James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer break new ground as well: rather than the usual trumpeting superhero music, they turn to simpler, more startling effects, like a madman finding all the wrong keys on a piano. They somehow strip away the musicality of certain cues and instead turn them into pure, emotional energy. It's not the type of score I'd want to listen to on a CD, but it's brutally effective during the film.

The Dark Knight is only Nolan's sixth film, but it marks the evolution of a major career. I saw his first feature, the remarkable Following (1998) at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and Memento is still one of my favorite films of this decade. I'll have to leave it up to future scholars to find more intricate themes in his work, but he shows a fearlessness, a willingness to stare into the abyss, that not even today's horror directors possess. His films all have a hint of the supernatural, but always containing elements that could more or less take place in the real universe.

He also has a gift with actors, though for the life of me I can't figure out why he and Bale settled on that whisper/growl speaking voice for Batman. (Part Clint Eastwood?) It sounds like it was a lot more trouble that it was worth (it sounds as though they often had to later amplify the whisper above the din), and though the voice does occasionally click, it's almost laughable in other places. Fortunately, the movie's best actors Caine and Oldman get plenty of time to shine, even in small scenes.

This brings me to Heath Ledger, the most buzzed-about part of this film. Readers of this site and of my work elsewhere know that, to put it plainly, I was not a fan of this beloved actor who unexpectedly passed away earlier this year. However, I first caught a glimmer of something interesting in last fall's I'm Not There, and to put a point to it, that glimmer continues here. He seems to have found a new kind of confidence -- and his own personality -- rather than relying on mumbling acting tricks or pretty boy looks. It's a shame we couldn't have seen more. But in The Dark Knight he's truly electrifying; his succulently savored maniac rants have a tinge of intelligence; this Joker knows exactly what he's doing, even if it's cracked.

"I'm an engine of chaos," he says in one of his many quotable speeches. He occasionally rolls his eyes and flips his tongue has he speaks, which reminded me -- appropriately enough -- of Jeff Goldblum's brilliantly manic performance in David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986). His Joker makeup is inspired; rather than evenly-lined greasepaint, it's made up of dreadful smears and haphazard scars. Best of all, Nolan affords the Joker and Batman equal time, unlike in Tim Burton's Batman (1989). It even has a scene in which the two adversaries sit down and talk at a table -- one of my rules for a great movie villain. "I don't want to kill you," the Joker tells Batman, surprised. "What would I do without you?" Indeed.

Overall, Nolan's mood may seem to overwhelm his actual story, which is much smaller in theme than it is in scope. But the idea of "looking for heroes" easily serves as shorthand for "looking for hope." Either way, The Dark Knight is a huge achievement. The original idea behind 1940s film noir was to reflect the unspoken mood of the country just after World War II (were such atrocities really possible?). Many recent films have railed about today's troubles, mainly in the form of well-reasoned messages (and lots of documentaries), but The Dark Knight is the first one to ignore all reason and simply let out a giant, sustained howl of rage and pain.

DVD Details: Warner only sent me the basic, "widescreen" DVD edition of the film, with no extras (other than optional language tracks and subtitles), but that's plenty for me. (It's one of the best films of the year, and I just want to see it again!) For the interested, there's also a two-disc special edition available.

Note: This review has been upgraded from a 3-1/2 star rating to a four-star rating.

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