THE DARK KNIGHT
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan (story by David S. Goyer; Batman created by Bob Kane)
Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Morgan Freeman
My Rating: 10 out of 10
The Dark Knight is one of the most perfectly perfect films I have ever seen. Admittedly it’s only in the last few years that I’ve started expanding my film horizons and watching the kind of movies that fall into the category of “masterpiece” (it’s been about eight months since I watched The Godfather for the first time) but I’m confident that others will agree with me when I say that despite being both a sequel and a comic book movie, The Dark Knight really is a masterpiece of modern film.
The story picks up almost a year after the events of Batman Begins, with Gotham City fighting a war on crime. Bruce Wayne (Bale) is doing his best to wipe out the mob in the guise of Batman, helped by bulter/confidant Alfred (Caine), Detective Gordon (Oldman) and love interest Rachel Dawes. When the new DA, Harvey Dent (Eckhart), starts making some headway on the crime problem through legal channels, Bruce believes it might be time to hang up the cowl and let Dent become the city’s protector. But everything starts going to hell when the Joker (Ledger) launches a campaign of terror and chaos against Gotham.
The script from brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan is a tight, well-oiled piece of work. They’ve written an epic crime drama, something that would make Scorsese give an appreciative whistle. The opening scene is enough to get any fan of crime movies in the right mood, with its intense action and with William Fichtner practically reprising his role from Heat. And as the film progresses the Nolans flesh out a living, breathing city and the factions and individuals who drive it. The diverse ensemble of characters, most of whom are lifted straight from Batman’s comic book stories like The Long Halloween or The Killing Joke, are symbols of the various factions and ideologies struggling for control of Gotham City while being well-rounded and fully realised characters in their own right. Characters like Gordon and Dent, portrayed in the Burton and Schumacher films as mere caricatures there to bumble about and make Batman look good, are immensely important to The Dark Knight.
The praise being heaped upon Heath Ledger is well deserved: he delivers a powerhouse performance, easily worthy of a posthumous Oscar nomination. He brings to like a complex and manic character who, at the same time, has no character to him, just an idea and an MO to back it up. The only other performance I can compare it to is Hugo Weaving as the titular character in V for Vendetta, for like that film we have a truly anonymous character that we only know inside of his assumed personality because who and what they are outside of that is completely irrelevant. But the Joker’s ideology is pressed into the very fabric of the film, right though to one of the taglines appearing on the movie’s poster: “Welcome to a world without rules”. The Nolan brothers’ writing and Ledger’s performance have given birth to a truly great film villain, one who spends two and a half hours trying to kill everyone and destroy everything, and for an actual purpose – albeit one as twisted as the man himself – rather than just playing the villain so that the hero has someone to play opposite. And beyond that, the thing that most impressed me about this creepy, complex, and undeniably watchable villain was that he actually scared me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so terrified of a film villain since I was a small child, because as the Joker knifes and explodes his way through the film we actually believe that none of the heroes, none of the characters we’ve come to care about, are safe.
It’s a minor miracle that through Ledger’s career-defining, scene-stealing performance we can still see the brilliance of the other characters. The Nolans don’t fall into the trap that Tim Burton did in 1989 by making the film all about the villain. As the title suggests, this is still Batman’s film and he receives as much screen-time as any other character. The writing is clear and sharp; some have criticised Batman’s lack of explosive and memorable dialogue when compared to the Joker, but since the Joker’s inception the idea has been that the Joker is explosive and flashy while Batman is dark and brooding. The Nolan brothers know this, and Christian Bale knows this, because he brings another phenomenal performance as Bruce Wayne and the caped crusader. This Batman is not showy, or happy, or jolly in any way: he’s a true dark knight, and as the film moves towards the conclusion Bale makes us believe that as angry and violent and brooding as Batman gets it’s all born out of the desperation of a man coming up against a challenge that he doesn’t know if he can face.
The newcomers to the franchise, Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhall, are able to match the intensity and drama of the hero and villain. Gyllenhall is playing the role that Katie Holmes played in the first film and it’s a great step up, actress wise. Gyllenhall is no scream queen, she brings a real, solid performance to the role of Rachel, and aided by the Nolan’s writing we’re presented with a female lead who’s more than just a damsel in distress. Some real kudos needs to go to Eckhart, who goes through an even bigger range than Ledger and Bale as he portrays the knight in shining armour, Harvey Dent, as he slips deeper and deeper into Gotham’s murky depths until by the end of the film he’s a completely different character. Eckhart makes us believe in Harvey Dent, he makes us trust him, and then he makes us fear him: it’s no mean feat, and worthy of praise. Gary Oldman returns as Jim Gordon, a fairly average, humble guy trying to protect the people of Gotham and becoming involved with bigwigs like Batman and the Joker to do it. Oldman is always a solid performer, and this film is no exception, but aside from a few scenes towards the end there isn’t much in the way of meat for Gordon in this film. Though it should be noted, when Oldman’s portrayal of Gordon is compared to his depiction in the comics, there’s nothing to be said but “spot on.” Rounding out the cast are some solid performances from Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Their characters don’t get much deeper than they were in the first film, and like they did in Batman Begins they provide a bit of relief, even a laugh or two, and in a film this dark and disturbing it’s frightfully important. Without the witticisms of Alfred the butler or the quiet indignation of Lucius Fox I suspect the audience would start to get as loopy as some of the characters.
Christopher Nolan again shows us his versatility as a director. It’s not that difficult to shoot action and make it exciting, but it does take skill to shoot action well and to make it really thrilling. Batman’s fights with the villains are staged like we see in the comics: from the bad guys perspective, seeing shadows moving in the corner of screen until a guy in an armoured bat suit suddenly appears and starts kicking ass. What would’ve been exciting becomes genuinely tense in Nolan’s capable hands. He’s similarly able to inject the ‘crime’ scenes with tension: the comparisons between the opening scene of Dark Knight and the bank robbery in Heat are dead on, as even the director will admit that the staging, cinematography and even the casting were all done to inspire the feel of those epic crime dramas. And Nolan excels as scenes were characters are just talking to one another. He’s able to pull some brilliant performances out of his actors, and scenes that could’ve become very ‘talkey-talkey’ are injected with pace and excitement that you can’t tear your eyes from. The only problem – the only problem – I could name about the movie was that one of the final action scenes utilised plot device that needed to be rendered with a lot of CGI, which pulled me out of the hyper-realism of the film. But even in CGI, Nolan was able to keep up that epic tension that grips people to their seats, eyes bulging out of their sockets and making them want to scream and cry and hurl things at the screen (in a good way).
I’m gushing, I know, but The Dark Knight is just that good. Don’t wait for the DVD, don’t download it, don’t buy it from Bali: watch it in the cinemas, as soon as you can, early and often. You will not regret it.
My Rating: 10 out of 10
Tags: aaron, alfred, awesome, bale, batman, bruce, caine, christian, dark, dawes, dent, eckhart, fox, freeman, gary, gordon, gyllenhaal, harvey, heath, jim, joker, knight, ledger, lucius, maggie, michael, morgan, oldman, pennyworth, rachel, two-face, wayne