Monday, July 21, 2008

You remind me of my father.

Warning - geeked-out hyperbole ahead. There's just no other way.

I keep hearing that noise - the low, atonal hum that opens The Dark Knight as if were an emergency broadcast signal for the end of days, creating an immediate, palpable tension that never lets up for the next two-and-a-half hours. With Batman at the center of a sprawling crime story focused on what Cormac McCarthy calls "the dismal tide" and Stephen King refers to as "slippage," The Dark Knight is a stunning, deeply unsettling portrait of entropy. The title isn't lying - this is dark stuff, not the Hammer-influenced, relatively safe darkness of Tim Burton's Batman movies, but a darkness born straight out of our uncertain present. It's ambitious, heady stuff for a movie that also needs to sell fast food and action figures, but Christopher Nolan's film is the rare summer blockbuster that lives up to impossible expectations - it's not just a great comic book or action movie but great cinema, one of a small group of films like The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back that elevates popular art to something thematically rich, thought-provoking, and wildly exciting.

Using Batman Begins' epilogue as a jumping-off point, The Dark Knight finds Lieutenant Gordon's (Gary Oldman) warning to Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) about the threat of escalation manifested in the Joker (Heath Ledger), who emerges without a past or explanation with a single-minded, anarchic purpose. Let me tell you what you already know: Ledger is mesmerizing as the Joker, a Nietzschian force of nature worthy of mention alongside all-time great movie villains from Hans Becker to Anton Chigurh. An early scene where the Joker makes a pencil disappear elicited spontaneous applause from the audience, and deservedly so - it's impossible to take your eyes off Ledger whenever he's onscreen, and to attribute this to his untimely death is both crass and inaccurate. The hissing tongue, the Jimmy Stewart from Mars voice, the ugly-duckling way he walks in the nurse's uniform (probably my favorite moment) and every other detail he gives the Joker are more than a bag of self-conscious actorly quirks. Ledger's performance is a triumph of extremes that succeeds in making us believe in a villain who is both completely mad and frighteningly logical about his identity and purpose - when the Joker tells Batman "You complete me," we're left with the disturbing implication that in this round of good vs. evil, the bad guy has the upper hand.

This Joker provides more than enough conflict for one movie, but he's just the prime mover of Nolan and his brother Jonathan's marvelous, intricately plotted script. A bank manager (William Fichtner) complains that criminals used to believe in something; this Gotham is a city of dying ideals, and its good guys are measured by how they protect these ideals while still effectively doing their jobs. At the heart The Dark Knight is the contrast between idealistic D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, less showy than Ledger but just as effective) and Wayne (Bale, underrated for his subtle work here), who accepts his own corruption as a means to an end. The choices these two men, as well as Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, endearingly square), Dent's girlfriend/Wayne's former squeeze Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal - upgrade!) make are never simple, and Nolan doesn't provide us with easy answers. In a time when big-budget movies are designed to be as reassuring to an audience's assumptions as possible, it's sort of amazing that Nolan was able to make a superhero movie this complex. Gotham (as played, stunningly, by Chicago) is a labyrinth of moral ambiguity, and Nolan challenges us to question our own assumptions about heroism and decency in a way that couldn't be more relevant (I'm only beginning to process the film's many layers of meaning).

But while mine is one in a sea of raves for The Dark Knight, I was confused by the number of reviews that claim the movie is no fun. It's wildly fun, almost dangerously so since most of the film's most entertaining moments arise from the shock of how far Nolan lets his Joker go. Balancing dazzlingly executed action sequences with carefully composed emotional beats (Gyllenhaal's delivery of the word "Listen" kills me). It's exhausting in the end, to be sure, but only because it's such a complete moviegoing experience - immersive, visceral, technically perfect (DP Wally Pfister, editor Lee Smith and composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard all deliver their best work) and flat-out astounding. Nolan reveals an ambition unseen not only in most comic book adaptations but in most movies, period. It feels like his entire career has been building to this, as he reveals himself to be one of the great cinematic storytellers, and The Dark Knight an unqualified masterpiece.


Anonymous said...

Your review kicks serious ass. And so does the film. One of the best films I've seen in recent memory. A tremendous crowd pleaser and filled with some of the best setpieces cinema has to offer.

Anonymous said...

your review sums up my feelings perfectly. in the days leading up to the midnight screening i was really starting to worry that there was no way it could live up to the hype, but it easily surpassed it. i was expecting a fun batman film but i got something much deeper than that. after a third viewing i'm only now able to see all the subtle details and intricate framework of the screenplay...and on top of that, it was filmed in my hometown, some of the scenes literally right out my front door! doesn't get much cooler than seeing the joker and batman face off on a street i walk down every day.

it's rare that a director respects an audience as much as nolan clearly does, and he should be commended. and who would have thought that heath ledger as the joker would turn out to be one of the most brilliant casting choices of recent times? if there's no posthumous oscar for him come next year, i'll be livid.

Allen Lulu said...

Without a doubt you and I saw two totally different movies.
Not only does this movie NOT kick ass, it is so poorly executed and convoluted that it made me angry.
And when I came out of the theater shouting that I must have taken crazy pills because it's such a poorly constructed mess, I was given thumbs up by strangers who had the same reaction.
This is a bad bad bad movie. I'm not just using hyperbole here, I'm not just an old guy bitchin', this is an irresponsible mess. Irresponsible in that the storytelling is so poor that Nolan should not be allowed to direct ever again. T
You remove Ledger (and Eckart) from this movie and I GUARANTEE you don't have the same reaction.
They are brilliant.
The rest of the film is not.
You can read some of my reasons at It is brief because I can't type with the speed of my vitriol.
God this movie sucked.

Andrew Bemis said...

Well, the laughable idea that Iron Man is the superior movie (more evidence that the television aesthetic is destroying the way we watch films) says it all - it's clear you wanted something more formulaic, and the things you cite as confusing didn't confuse me at all. You don't see how the Joker took the cop hostage, for instance, because it's a foregone conclusion. That's the joke. If you actually watch the movie - pay attention to the images and cuts, instead of waiting for it to tell you everything - it makes a lot of sense. Pay attention, old man.

Also, it's hilarious how you and practically all Dark Knight detractors have this weird, condescending need to say things like "We didn't see the same movie" or "A smarter person would have seen..." blah blah blah. Don't get me wrong, I think every movie should have its contrarians. But why so serious?

Also, you're dead wrong about one thing. Yes, the score was often bombastic, but there were also whole sequences that were nearly silent, which is very unusual for this kind of movie.

Allen Lulu said...

Saying "we didn't see the same movie" is a democratic way of saying, "you were wrong", yes. But in this case, I feel very strongly that the approach to the film, the viewer's perception and predisposition must have some causation for thei love or hate of this film.
Iron man was not a triumph of television over cinema. While more better work is being done on television that in features the past few years, it is just that the story is told in a more traditional way. More conventionally. Now, of all people, Bemis, you would expect me to embrace that which is out of the box. After all, Forbidden Zone and Magnolia are two of my favorite movies. Why then was I "so serious" about my contempt for this?
Because it's not well made. It just SEEMS well made.
The big moments of silence? Yeah, I know they were there. They were also in the wrong place. A bold experiment but one that truly fails for me.
The score was designed to give the impression that every moment, even the quiet ones, were fraught with import. Even at the expense of being able to comprehend, follow, or hear.
When the Joker cracks his neck, okay, perhaps, PERHAPS that should be the indication as to why and how he succeeded with the cop, but the film is so poor in it's construction up to that point that for me it was just one more irresponsible moment of poor film making.
You mention the images and the cuts. The cuts are clunky and distracting and the images are not rendered well at all. All too often the scene is too dark, or not staged well, or haphazard or uninteresting. I think, for me, this started with the first shot.
It's a grand move, the camera in the helicopter-dolly, but the angle is so poor that it deflates it's own import.
I had the same feelings about Batman Begins. I truly think that I just don't like Nolan as a movie maker.
Ledger was brilliant, though. Not Oscar brilliant but brilliant just the same.

Andrew Bemis said...

"While more better work is being done on television that in features the past few years -"



Allen. You just don't get it.

Allen Lulu said...

Wow. Bemis, seriously, have you watched television lately?
Boston Legal crackles in a way that would make Ben Hecht proud.
Lost is the unfolding of a novel.
Rescue Me, The Shield, the first few seasons of 24, what these shows have done to the genre are the reasons that features are trying to step up.
Trying. And failing.
I'm not going to convince you that The Dark Knight is crapola. It's like arguing politics or religion. It was satisfying enough to get the emails I did this morning from friends in the business who agree with me (and are respected members of their field.
What surprises me is that we have always seen films the same way, you and I. I hold your reviews in the highest esteem. I think you get it right every time.
This time we couldn't be further away from each other.
Since I don't think I am wrong then sophistry dictates that you are the one who has taken the crazy pills. You and the 10s of millions of others.
For sure I can not be wrong. This, please, could not be that.

Anonymous said...

Allen I.,

You said:

"Boston Legal crackles in a way that would make Ben Hecht proud.
Lost is the unfolding of a novel.
Rescue Me, The Shield, the first few seasons of 24, what these shows have done to the genre are the reasons that features are trying to step up.
Trying. And failing."


And anyone who talks about so called great television and doesn't mention The Wire is definitely on as you so eloquently put it...

..."the crazy pills".

Boston Legal is the lawyer equivalent of Dallas and comparing it to the writing of Ben Hecht is kooky to say the least.

Rescue Me, The Shield and 24 are all incredibly overrated.

And saying Lost plays out a like a great novel is kind of retarded. That is one of the most boring, hackneyed, pedestrian and gimmicky shows I have ever seen.

Best dramatic shows on television in recent years:

The Wire

...Period. No discussion.

And while I wasn't a fan of Ledger's work in the past his performance is indeed "oscar brilliant."

When 2008 is over his performance will be the one everyone will still be talking about...And not because he died.

Iron Man was dogshit.

Pardon my language, Bemis.

Just had to vent after reading this silly post from Allen I.

Allen Lulu said...

Dallas? I beg not. I have been watching the first two seasons mainly because I never have and I eschewed the show as exactly what you described. The truth is, it crackles, my friend. It is rich with character as well as caricature. It's meta at the right times, snarky, self-righteous and pandering, al the things a good lawyer show should be.
As for 24 and the shield being overrated. I'll give you the last few seasons of 24. Dogshit. But the first season was some of the best television had to offer.
And you're just plain wrong about Lost.
As far as the wire goes: I haven't seen it. We don't have HBO and it's on the netflix queue. Not immediately, I have other things to get to, but I will get to it.
I beg to differ re: Iron man. I was hoping (and speechified thusly) that it would be Star Wars to Batman's Godfather.
Unfortunately, The Dark Knight is not The Godfather. It's not even Mobsters. I think this is an example of a movie that would have been better served to have been directed by Michael Bay or Brett Ratner or even, Jeannot Szwarc. Since none of them have a concept of how to tell a story cohesively and cast aside editorial storytelling for charged moments, they would have been equal candidates.
And what are you talking about? Ledger has always been terrific. He's strong, makes great choices and his turn in Brokeback was very Oscar caliber. But Ledger's performance, while great, is no more Oscar worthy than Alan Rickman in Die Hard. Both are the best things in the film but Rickman had the misfortune of not dying to get his Oscar.
Okay, that was harsh. I would be perfectly happy if Ledger got an Oscar for this role. Why not? It would be the final triumph of the geeks over art. Because this is not art. 10 years from now we will all watch this again and think, oops, yeah, this wasn't all that great.
But, that's a decade away. For now, huzzah the brilliance of The Dark Knight! The most profitable bad movie ever made!

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