Knight and the City: The Dark Knight ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 26, 2008)

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I love this dirty town.

Psst…Have you heard? There’s this new Batman movie out this summer. Rumor has it that it might have legs. Personally, I think the whole thing sounds a little iffy. I hope that the film studio will be able to recoup its modest $100 million promotion expenditure. Furthermore, I…oops, hang on; someone is sending me a text message. Ah-it’s from one of my inside sources. It says: “$155,000,000 opening weekend.” What a relief (whew!).

Some leading critics are hailing The Dark Knight as the best “superhero” movie of all time. I can’t weigh in on that angle, because it’s not one of my favorite genres (although I was pleasantly surprised by Iron Man). One thing I can tell you with assurance about Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins is this: it is one of the best contemporary film noirs I’ve seen since Michael Mann’s Heat.

Giving you a detailed synopsis would be moot; suffice it to say that crime-ridden Gotham City still enjoys the nocturnal protection of the Batman (Christian Bale), the masked vigilante/alter-ego of wealthy industrialist playboy (corporate fascist?) Bruce Wayne. He continues his uneasy alliance with the stalwart Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) an Elliot Ness-type lawman who has vowed to round up all the bad guys in Gotham and outfit them in striped PJs. In this outing, they are joined by “incorruptible” D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).

A spanner in the works arrives in the person of The Joker (the late Heath Ledger) a vile criminal mastermind who has formed an uneasy alliance of his own with an assortment of Gotham’s most unsavory recidivists, like the city’s mob boss (Eric Roberts). However, the Joker’s increasingly twisted, nihilistic acts of mayhem even begin to repulse his underworld cohorts. He is the embodiment of purely soulless anarchy, which brings us to Ledger’s performance, which is what lies at the very (dark) heart of this film.

This is one part of the  hype surrounding the film that is justified; Ledger is mesmerizing in every  frame he inhabits. This definitely isn’t your father’s Joker (Cesar Romero’s vaudevillian cackler in Batman ’66) or even Jack’s Joker (Nicholson’s hammy turn in Batman ‘89). Ledger plays his Joker like a psychotic mash-up of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Tim Curry’s evil clown in Stephen King’s It, with maybe some occasional sampling from Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Gene Simmons on crack. He’s John Wayne Gacy, coming for your children with a paring knife, and in the clown costume. I don’t know what war-torn region of the human soul Ledger went to in order to find his character, but I don’t ever want to go there, even just to snap a few pictures.

While there is no shortage of the requisite budget-busting action sequences that one expects in a summer crowd-pleaser, it’s the surprisingly complex morality tale simmering just beneath the Biff! Pow! Bam! in Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s screenplay that is unexpectedly engaging; it even verges on being thought-provoking.

Nolan is no stranger to the noir sensibility; previous films like Insomnia, Memento, and Following bear that out. When I watch those films, I get a sense he has studied the masters; in fact the bank robbery that opens The Dark Knight is obvious homage to the heist scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. There are a lot of classic noir themes at work here, in particularly the hard-boiled notion that no one is incorruptible; everyone has their price. This idea informs the nexus between the “heroes” and “villains” of the piece; nearly everyone eventually crosses the line to get what they want (even if it’s “justice”). That is what is most frightening about this particular incarnation of the Joker; his sole raison d’etre is to orchestrate a scenario of fear and anarchy-and then sit back and enjoy the show. “I am an agent of chaos,” he states at one point, and you believe him.

I wouldn’t recommend bringing the kids (or the squeamish) to this film, it’s the most brutally violent installment of the franchise. The violence feels very “real”; and I think that is what makes it disturbing. Despite the fact that it is, after all, a super hero fantasy, the film carries an overall tone of gritty realism that is unique for the genre. One scene in particular, set in an interrogation room of a police station and involving Batman and his nemesis, begins to reek uncomfortably of Eau de Jack Bauer (Holy Gitmo, Batman!).

I have a couple of other issues, but they don’t sink the film. Superb actors like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Cillian Murphy feel under-utilized in their underwritten parts. I also felt there were a few too many false endings; as a consequence, some subplots, like the transition of a principal “good guy” into a signature Batman nemesis, seem to get short shrift. Undoubtedly, these loose ends were primarily tacked on as sequel bait, which I suppose is par for the course. Still, you still might want to catch the The Dark Knight on a slow night… if only for experiencing Ledger’s singularly unique contribution to the screen villain hall of fame.

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