Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

I still don't feel like I have enough distance from Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight to speak about it with any semblance of objectivity--that's how haunting it is. It gets underneath your skin and festers, making you ponder things that you never thought you'd be pondering, while walking out of a comic book movie. I'm trying to get beyond the hyperbolic praise that's been floating around, both of the film and of Heath Ledger's tour-de-force, writ-large performance. But ultimately, it's hard to do so for a film that so richly lives up to months (years, actually) of hype, ever since the end of 2005's Batman Begins, where audiences first caught glimpse of the Joker card. It's been said so many times that it will seem trite at this point, but make no mistake--The Dark Knight completely re-writes the rules of the comic-book/superhero-film. This is the one that all others will be judged against from now on.

A few things one should know about this film--it's incredibly dark (no pun intended). And I do mean dark in every sense of the word. Literally, there's a lot of harsh light and dark contrasts going on here, a lot is heavily shadowed (though if you ask me, Joker is never more terrifying than when he's out in broad daylight...more on that later). Content wise, this is a very dark, downbeat movie. No cheesy, Spiderman-style one-liners for the kids. No cutesy romances. And no wrap-it-up cleanly ending. To put it plainly, this film will fuck with your head in ways that no glowing review can prepare you for.

First of all, I want to talk about a few key aspects of this film that make it particularly inspired. The casting of Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Rachel Dawes, for one. I love that she was cast in place of Katie Holmes for several reasons. When I was watching Holmes in Batman Begins, I didn't really get the air of an Assistant District Attorney so much as a young actress all dressed up in her mommy's clothes. Gyllenhaal brings a certain adult sexiness and personality to the role that Holmes never could have (perhaps because Holmes isn't really sexy and lacks a discernible personality of any kind ever since Tom Cruise had that part of her brain removed.) Gyllenhaal elevates Dawes beyond a traditional female reflector, transforming her into a character that we truly care about (something very key for this film).

Secondly, I want to talk about Heath Ledger's Joker. All that's been said about that is accurate. This is his movie. He commands every single scene he's in, and a few he's not since the Joker is always a looming, menacing presence in this film. You never know when he's going to show up, and when he does, it's terrifying. Beyond Ledger, I think a key aspect of the success of his performance can be credited to writer-director Christopher Nolan and his decision not to sexualize the Joker. It would have been so easy to go there, I think. There's one thing I know, and that's men need sex, whatever variety it may be. There's a key scene in the film where the Joker has a confrontation with Rachel Dawes. It is here that you truly see how he can't be bought. Compare this to Tim Burton's Batman, where Joker (played by Jack Nicholson) is so easily duped and seduced by Vicki Vale. Ledger's Joker is so not interested--not in money, nor women, nor any other earthly delights you can throw at him. He thrives on chaos and destruction, and even then, it has to be on his terms. And Ledger plays the insanity and the hysteria beautifully. Yet, you cannot watch the performance without feeling a lingering sadness. If the impact of Ledger's death hasn't hit yet, the huge amount of talent that was lost last year is on full display here and makes this already dark film that much darker.

Christian Bale is better here than he was in Batman Begins. This time around, he allows himself to be both Batman and Bruce Wayne, making the latter into a fully-formed, well-rounded character, rather than delving too headlong into gruff, monotone smolder. That is why we feel more deeply for Wayne. We sense his pain and his dilemma. His desire not to be Batman, because he knows what he must sacrifice, is at odds with his inability to give up his mask and cape because he knows too deeply what's at stake. He's human here. I can't help but picture Christopher Nolan behind the camera saying to Bale "Bruce Wayne, not John Wayne." And he gets it right.

Finally, I was actually the most blindsided by Aaron Eckhart, who brings a depth to District Attorney Harvey Dent that I wasn't expecting. It would have been more easy and simplistic to make Dent the man that Rachel Dawes was seeing simply because she couldn't have Bruce Wayne (at least not the way she wanted). But you understand, not only why she's with him, but that she does in fact love him and that is due very much to Eckhart's sympathetic portrayal. Not only does he make you believe in Harvey Dent, he gives off the air of a Harvey Dent who believes in himself, which makes a later plot-twist all the more effective.

Everything about this film, the top-notch cinematography, to its wonderful score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer (two of my favorites), will command the attention of an astute watcher of cinema. A lot of talk has been flying around about Oscar consideration, mainly for Heath Ledger. Not since Peter Finch (Network) has a performer won a posthumous Academy Award. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome. Early release date. This film, for all of its triumphs, does happen to exist in a genre that doesn't typically garner major awards consideration--and the Academy is very slow to change, as we all know. I will have to see how the year progresses before I decide whether I'm completely for an Oscar-win for Ledger, but I can't imagine him not making my final five, come year's end. A nomination is almost assured, though a win...I'm not so sure. Even if he is deserving (and he very well might be) I doubt that this is the type of performance that the Oscars would reward if Ledger were alive. I would submit that if the studio campaigns strategically, it could even land a best picture or best director nod--especially if some of the highly anticipated heavy hitters being released at year's end are disappointments. This is already shaping up to be a disappointing year in cinema (I don't think we have another 2007 on our hands). My point is this, if Gladiator and The Departed could win best picture (the latter of with I have a fondness for, though I downright loathe the former), then why can't The Dark Knight sidestep all of the aforementioned barriers and at least land a nomination? This is the best film of the year so far, and is certain to be a place-holder on several critics top ten lists--the ones who are paying attention, anyway.

Grade: A- (though leaning towards B+) We'll see

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