Directed by the thoughtful Christopher Nolan, who co-wrote with his brother Jonathan (the team who gave us “Memento”), “The Dark Knight” has Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, two of the Dylans from last year’s “I’m Not There”, facing off as Batman and the Joker, while Gotham City’s idealistic new DA (Aaron Eckhart) woos a sharp young prosecutor (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who is also the love of Bruce Wayne’s life. Gotham is Chicago, more or less undressed: there’s an eerie overhead shot of Wacker Drive, one of our major downtown arteries, crammed bumper-to-bumper with citizens trying to flee a city under siege by the Joker. A car chase shot in Lower Wacker culminates in a particularly striking shot in which Batman “trips” a rampaging semi.
Nolan made the key decision to invest the Batman archetypes with naturalism—he’s like a singer singing a golden oldie in a way that gives the over-familiar words their meaning back. Thus, the late Ledger’s Joker is not campy but raw and fetid, with a wound-like mouth. He’s like something long drowned that got up and now skulks among us. Two-Face’s visage isn’t just ugly but truly disturbing. Nolan’s approach is aided greatly by the classy supporting actors enlisted to play the archetypal roles: Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Batman’s equivalent to “Q”, Lucius Fox (actually, I don’t remember this character from my childhood researches of the comic books). I particularly liked Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon. The problem is that this realism hasn’t been played across the board: there’s a scene in which Batman bungee-plunges after Maggie, who’s just been hurled out a skyscraper window, and snags her moments before her certain splattering. I would’ve thought she’d be a bit shaken; instead she smiles like she wouldn’t mind doing it again.
“The Dark Knight” sounds the perennial Batman themes—heroism and villainy, law and order versus anarchy. Seeking to resound down the corridors of the last seven years of Bush, it adds the theme of the use and abuse of power, but the theme is more flat than resonant. The picture wants to do more than merely entertain: it wants to be about our soul as a nation, and while I give it credit for that, the script is uneven—gripping when it has the Joker gleefully conducting “experiments in human psychology” that force people to make impossible choices (e.g., who lives and who dies, or to kill or be killed), yet bumpy and so grim-faced it verges on silliness. That said, it's more nuanced politically than we expect from the basically rightist Batman fantasy; though it can be very ugly, it does want to play to our better instincts.
In short, “The Dark Knight” is an at times fascinating picture that dares to reach for greatness but doesn't quite rise to that level.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)
- Aug 10, 2008