The Dark Knight
Director: The inimitable Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhardt
Yes, I love Christopher Nolan. I think the man has managed to find a way to produce intense, dramatic, and intellectually thought-provoking films within the current Hollywood system, all while still making movies with mass appeal. The Dark Knight is, perhaps, his best example of this.
The second in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, following 2005’s Batman Begins, we see Bruce Wayne/Batman (Bale) in full crime-fighting mode. This time, though, he’s up against a new kind of enemy – the Joker (Ledger), a mad criminal who follows no rules and worships no false idols. The Joker gets under Batman’s skin most when he starts going after Gotham’s new white knight, district attorney Harvey Dent (Eckhardt), a man so idealistic that Bruce Wayne can’t help but idolize him, and Dent’s girlfriend Rachel (Gyllenhaal), who just so happens to be the love of Wayne’s life.
I’m not really a huge superhero movie fan. Sure, they are a diverting couple of hours at the cineplex, but I find most to be middling at best, and that’s what I think about the ones I like. When I heard that a new Batman movie was coming out (Batman Begins) I rolled my eyes in recollection of the putrescence that is Batman and Robin. I needed convincing from multiple people that this new Batman film was unlike others, and eventually, after being coerced into watching it, I agreed. I actually liked Batman Begins! I actually think it’s a good movie! Shocking! By the time its sequel came out, I had gotten to know Christopher Nolan more as a director, I had started to appreciate his body of work as a whole, and I was looking forward to it.
Nolan then proceeded to take any expectations I had and threw them out the window, dishing up instead a big heaping plateful of thrilling social commentary awesomeness, wrapped up in the trappings of “superhero movie.”
The mood; oh my goodness, this is a tense film. The sort of movie where I realize I was holding my breath and squeezing whatever was nearby only when the movie finishes, because that’s the only time the movie lets up. Nolan manages to create several distinct “episodes” in The Dark Knight, yet he very clearly and smoothly transitions from one to the next. What’s harrowing is that the “conclusion” of one part of the film provides no catharsis; instead, we become more deeply enmeshed in the dark, dank, dirty world of The Dark Knight. By the end of the film, we are so involved, so deep in amongst the people and situations, it’s almost difficult to extract yourself. This movie stays with you, no two ways about it.
A very clear theme of The Dark Knight is the concept of anarchy or chaos. The Joker is a unique villain, and a very scary villain because he has no rules. While at first blush, this sounds like an interesting concept but one you only vaguely understand, as the film progresses, you start to realize just what chaos means in terms of the film. The Joker burns heaps of money, forms alliances then breaks them, and causes mayhem all in the name of chaos itself. He has no motivation. How do you stop evil if you cannot find where it stems from? As an “evil genius,” Joker has a frighteningly quick ascendancy. His crimes become larger and grander as the film progresses, and we see his interest in social experimentation take hold. Someone wreaking all this havoc for the sheer joy of causing chaos is chilling. The Joker is a damn good villain.
Joker is undoubtedly chaos and anarchy incarnated, but there is a very nice parallel between the character of Joker and Batman. Joker likes Batman because Batman is like him. Early on in the film, there’s some guff about a criminal who escaped to Hong Kong, and Dent the DA can’t get him back because China won’t extradite a national. Enter Batman; Batman doesn’t follow the rules of international jurisdiction. He only sees a criminal who needs to face justice. For as much of a moral code that Batman has, he follows far fewer of societal dictates in this film in particular. He allows himself to lose control; consider the Joker interrogation sequence. The Joker manages to push enough of Batman’s buttons to get him to dangerously lose control. There is not much separating these two characters. Ah, Nolan, playing with the precepts of “superhero” and “supervillain.” Our “hero” is not far from the edge of chaos, only barely pulling back at the last possible second.
All of this, though, reflects back on the anarchy of Nolan himself. Nolan not only directed the film, but co-wrote it as well; this means that the story we’re seeing is one that he wanted to tell. Flat out, there is shit that goes down in The Dark Knight that breaks fundamental rules of summer superhero blockbuster films. The only example I will give of this, to avoid spoilers for the two people on the planet who haven’t seen this yet, is that the Joker blows up a hospital. A hospital. There are things that you aren’t supposed to do when you make a movie; kill the family dog is one of them, but I’m sure that blowing up a hospital also makes the list. I take it back to Nolan in terms of having the all-out balls to commit such things to films. This is clearly a director who is aware of the accepted rules of traditional blockbuster films, and he doesn’t care. He is not willing to make a traditional blockbuster. He takes your rules, spits on them, and instead hands you a far superior film. It’s as if Nolan is saying to his audience, “You only *think* you want a crappy fast food burger, but you *actually* want this succulent sirloin. I’ll give you sirloin. You’ll enjoy it more.”
I love the social experiments the Joker plays in the film. They are thought-provoking and sinister, and they grow in scope. He starts by “recruiting” three thugs from a fellow crime boss to his team, but there’s only room for one; the camera doesn’t show us what happens, but we assume it was something fatal to two of the three. He goes to the airwaves to offer impromptu bounties for the heads of other people, encouraging ordinary citizens to take to violence. In the final grand social experiment, we see what Nolan has been building to; the corruptibility of ordinary citizens. I am coming to realize that Nolan has little faith in some things, the moral code of the populace at large being one of them, and organized law-keeping organizations being another; The Dark Knight illustrates both of these ideas in spades.
Heath Ledger. Heath Ledger breaks my heart into a million little pieces in The Dark Knight because his performance is so drop-dead awesome, and we will never, NEVER get that again. I have seen many movies, and although this will sound unnecessarily hyperbolic, I would count Heath Ledger’s Joker in my top 5 favorite performances of all time. Yes, I know other people say that too, and I don’t care. It’s that awesome, it’s that amazing, and I love it that much. It’s such a scary Joker, and it’s his ultimate role. And it makes me so damn sad.
Christopher Nolan is my husband’s favorite filmmaker. Rob loves Memento; probably his favorite movie of all time. I cannot begin to count the number of lengthy conversations the two of us have had about various entries from Nolan’s filmography. Ultimately, that’s what I think I love most about Nolan’s work. He really gives you something to think about and talk about. His are not *turn your brain off* films. You can’t have The Dark Knight on in the background. It demands your attention, and isn’t that great? I mean, it’s masquerading as a superhero movie! A superhero movie providing social commentary! Who’d have thought it!
Arbitrary Rating: 10/10. I don’t like superhero movies. I love The Dark Knight.