Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

...Because if I didn't, St. Peter might not let me in....

Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight could be the most recommendable movie...ever. No, it doesn't cater to the lowest common denominator and no, it doesn't play safe by not pushing envelopes. The film is incredibly dark in tone, color, and theme. The explosions, while not big enough for say, Jerry Bruckheimer, feel bigger. But it is Knight's tension that serves the film best. The Dark Knight is so recommendable because it's just that good.

It's everything one could ever want in a film. The story is rock-solid and the twists are believable. The love triangle between Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) provide drama beyond the bombastic. Perhaps most importantly, Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker is, barring something miraculous in film acting, the best performance of year and in a long time. More on this later.

It has been a year since the events of Batman Begins (Nolan's prequel). Batman, Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Dent team up to fight crime in Gotham City. Mostly, it's the seemingly omnipresent nature of Batman that sends criminals scurrying to their respective safe houses. In battle for Gotham City, it's the bottom of the ninth and the criminals need a big bat to tie the score. The big bat comes in the form of The Joker - more like a Bunyan-sized club! What he brings to the table that his colleagues do not is the utter disregard for the consequences. The Joker rallies the criminals and weaves a "plan" so intricate that it forces the good guys against each other and eventually scars Batman's unblemished legacy.

First, some thoughts on Nolan's style. In terms of visual spectacle, The Dark Knight dwarfs anything seen in Batman Begins. But this makes logical sense - the criminals didn't need to resort to drastic tactics because nobody pushed them far enough. Batman did, and now the criminals push back. If the film industry had a performance-enhancing drugs problem, I suggest The Dark Knight's production facilities and accountants start shredding papers. The action pieces are bigger. The stunts more daring and the action more suspenseful. After all, "this city deserves a better class of criminal."

Batman Begins
featured a more murky color palette: varying shades of brown. For the most part, the criminals were the dirty scum of drug trafficers and petty thieves. A good chunk of the plot took us to The Narrows, the slums of Gotham City.Once again, the change in color palette makes sense. The criminals are not only destructive, but elusive. Batman has become savvier and better equipped. It's as if things have upgraded. Nathan Crowley (production design) and Wally Pfister (cinematography) create a sleeker look for Knight. With the sharp decline in crime, the metropolis has been able to rebuild itself. This can be seen in the opening shot of the film - a long movement toward a shiny skyscraper. The colors are cleaner as well, transitioning from the dirty browns of Begins to blue, grey, and black with Knight. And everything appears darker. Even the daytime scenes appear to be overcast and dreary - not good for the psychology of Gotham's citizens. Even Batman himself is streamlined. His outfit is less spacesuit-clunky and more aerodynamic and agile - after all he does fight crime!

I can say all I want about Nolan's directing, or the script (penned by Nolan and his brother Jonathan), or the plot. This film belongs to The Joker and consequently, Heath Ledger. To continue with a baseball analogy, Nolan, Bale, Michael Caine, and others all reached base, but you cannot win a game without scoring and Ledger's performance provides the runs. Tim Burton, the director of the first two modern incarnations of the caped crusader, seems to be criticized for concentrating too much on the villain and not enough on the title character. After seeing Knight, one understands why.

Nolan already explored the origin story with the prequel. Batman's story has been told and now the real fun begins. There is no need to mention why Bruce Wayne dons this particular costume and why he combats the criminals. Time to focus on The Joker.

Here's the kicker - we hardly learn anything about him! He gives his victims different anecdotes about his past, but nothing more. He calls himself an agent of chaos. While we may not learn anything about him or why he chooses to do what he does, there are things we know. He is ruthless (does killing someone by jamming their head into a pencil, not the other way 'round count?). His craft is merely anarchy. Even when he comes into a pile of money, he burns it. Juts goes to show you, if you really really want something, you're going to get it, barter system or no barter system.

Ledger's performance is breathtaking! I'll admit that I was beyond skeptical when it was announced that Ledger was to play the smiling villain. He'd never shown me any bravado. Let's face it, The Joker's a strange character. Before Knight, his best performance was for Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005). But it was a calmer delivery, more internal. However, Ledger has completely lost himself in this role. I have seen it twice and my attempts to see "through" the makeup and the voice were folly. He walks with a slight hunch - clearly no regard for posture. His speech is direct and to-the-point, always more clever than funny. His voice ranges from a high-pitched squeal to an overbearing dictatorial quality.

Recently, I have become more impressed with subtle performances rather than the flamboyant. This performance successfully straddles the line. He falls down a lot and laughs loudly, but also uses voice inflection and facial expression in a nuanced manner. I know that some evaluations of this performance may dock him for hiding behind makeup and a satanic tailor, but try to find Heath in there. I challenge even the FBI to find traces of Ledger.

One final note on Ledger's Joker. I felt a tad uncomfortable watching him on screen. I speak now of Ledger himself. The rumors are that this role contributed in some way to his death - and believe me, its not hard to see why. To see the cause of death on-screen is unsettling. But mostly, it's depression I feel. To see this performance and know that there will be no more - it's a drastic loss for the film community and cinematic history. Our saving grace is that he lives forever on celluloid!

Lost in the Joker shuffle, is how stellar the entire cast performs. Most notable is Gary Oldman as Lt. (and then Commish) Gordon. We've seen him hijack the president's airplane and dispatch Dementors with the best of them. Again, subtlety wins the day. There is so much restraint and control exhibited here. Sometimes people are wooden and carry no emotion and this is how Oldman realizes Gordon.

Finally, to the violence itself. I won't try to excavate this film's place in the post9/11 world. No, I want to look at how Nolan handles the terrorism in his Batman franchise. Both film's rely on Gotham to destroy itself. Certainly, Neeson's character and The Joker offer their support but their hands are not pushing a big red button, or striking the match, or pulling the trigger. Batman Begins features the poisonous toxin to help Gotham "tear itself apart through fear." And The Joker plays sociological mind games with Gotham's citizens. Save yourself, but destroy your own karma...or...keep your karma, but perish? Bullets no longer win the day. Use a weapon (such as fear) to control. Annihilating the enemy is tough - it's not exactly desirable. Get them to do the work for you - resourceful! All you need is a charismatic leader. If you're looking for it, ask yourself how many times you took your eyes off The Joker during this movie.

Even though the Joker ultimately fails in his bid to wipe out Gotham City, he leaves his mark. No, not a single card from the deck but a blemish on Batman. The Joker forces Batman to a brand of justice that necessarily has consequences, ones that call Batman's integrity in jeopardy. Yes, he keeps us safe, but at what cost? What is an acceptable body count? Are five lives worth those of millions? Batman, is truly left in the dark. Nolan explains that this knight is not dark for his costume and his time card results, but for his questionable nature.