Monday, July 21, 2008
The Dark Knight
There will be some spoilers in this post about The Dark Knight. So, stop reading if you want to be totally spoiler-free.
I thought Batman Begins was a terrific movie, and when I heard that Warner Bros. had given Christopher Nolan even more latitude in making the sequel, I got nothing but warm fuzzies. I figured he, more than anyone else, would push this franchise right back into the noir it was always begging to be. The title alone of this current chapter pinpoints the allure of Batman/Bruce Wayne. He is, fundamentally, a do-gooder. But he's also one deeply fucked-up dude.
In Batman Begins, Christian Bale (and Nolan) took Bruce Wayne and Batman beyond the usual broody incarnation and tapped into his lurking rage. Luckily for the citizens of Gotham, he ultimately chose to channel that thirst for revenge into cracking criminal skull. Now, in The Dark Knight, the Nolan brothers' script and Bale up the stakes by constantly throwing the hero into emotionally and morally charged situations designed to test his boundaries. And, luckily for us moviegoers, Batman's boundaries are pretty damn far and Nolan/Bale have perfectly captured his propensity for stunningly stylish brutality.
In fact, portions of the film reminded me of a couple of the masters of this paradox, such as Coppola's Godfather and, more specifically, some of De Palma's work. And that's something I really like, because as a director, De Palma is often maligned (fucking cockaroach!) for his sleaze factor. Nolan doesn't use the De Palma split screen, but he does do a pictorial homage to Dressed to Kill in which Ledger gets to shine. (More on him in a bit.)
Now let me say this -- this is a near perfect summer movie. We were lucky to have two really classy comic action thrillers this year. (Iron Man being the other one.) Nolan captures some shots that have lasting, nearly iconic visual resonance along with just sheer, dark beauty. And his climax is a masterful piece of literal symbolism with a dual fall from grace. The movie has a two and a half hour run time, but it's paced and pieced so well that it really will keep you fully engaged. All that said, when I say "near perfect," I guess what I'm saying is this: I loved it. And yet I do have a few gripes. Now, before you sigh and roll your eyes and ask "Why so serious" about some dumb entertainment, I'll beat you to the punch. I admit that I have a vapid life. Therefore, I do take my entertainment seriously. Also, I'm a bitch.
My main grievance is that I'm utterly sick to death of fight and chase scenes where you can't tell what's happening because of the editing choices or murky quickness of the shots. We've seen a famous chase scene through Chicago's Lower Wacker Drive before. It was in The Blues Brothers. And I don't expect anyone to ever be able to film a car chase like the one in Death Proof. But at least watch The Bourne Identity to get a feel for a top-notch chase scene that's not at all confusing. That said, the climax of the chase scene in Dark Knight atones for the shortcomings in some of the other shots.
Complaint number two: Bale/Batman was definitely given short shrift, particularly after a truly traumatic event which ended up being played as a plot device instead of for dramatic heft. Said plot device was a bit cheapened by an earlier, transparent twist of the same nature. I won't go into too-spoilerish of detail here, but if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about. The main focus and repercussions of the event shifted all the attention to how someone else processed the event as Bruce/Batman's reactions were glazed over. It could've truly turned him to an even more frightening, darker knight with a potential to turn, but instead, those nuances were left to someone else.
It's a great script the Nolans churned out. For the genre that the Nolans so obviously love, they're masters at using all the tried and true tricks at their disposal. They repeatedly hung Chekhov's gun and used foreshadowing as heavy as the visual shadows that Batman lurks in. However, there were plot holes you could drive the Batmobile through and everything pivots upon character reactions and motivations that sometimes contort a bit nonsensically. But I can let things like that go as long it all flows together as a movie, because I'm watching it as a popcorn flick, not as a psychological thriller.
But I also think that's where its reach slightly exceeded its grasp. The Nolans had collaborated before on the wonderful little Memento. But this is a much bigger budget and with bigger expectations. But scriptwise, bigger isn't always better, and there was some clutter (the twist that fell flat and proved useless, and a wasted Eric Roberts) that could've been trimmed to keep the runtime more manageable. In essence, just like his protagonist, Nolan didn't know his limit and he just may have hit it here. But also like Batman, he somehow manages to bring the potential chaos back under control and make the movie, as a whole, rise above it.
This is most definitely a film that has post 9/11 etched all over it, as how to deal with terrorism is a big theme. And then, when we do see Batman's "doing evil for ultimate good" shimmer to the surface, it was politically charged. Here's the spoiler: Batman used "warrantless wiretapping" in the name of stopping terrorism. And no, I don't think I'm reading too much into it. Not seeing that parallel is kind of like not seeing the supergay subtext in Superbad.
Heath's Joker? You've read other reviews, so you know he's great. In Nolan's noir-scape, the Joker loses all semblance of levity and becomes a truly frightening, suicidal, amoral agent of anarchy. You know this guy is truly fucking evil because he commits the cardinal sin of actually having non-bleached teeth. He's designed to be a scene-stealer, but in terms of dialogue and sheer screen time, I think he also managed to steal the movie from Batman. Luckily for the movie, it works because his every move is riveting. Ledger manages to outplay even his rictus makeup with a vast array of twitches and slurps and licks.
But here again, some judicious editing wouldn't have been a bad thing. There's one particular monologue of Joker's where he waxes eloquent about why he uses knives instead of guns to make the killing process last longer. It's all very chilling and diabolical. And yet it's also complete idiocy because at that juncture he's used a knife only once but has managed to use several handguns, an automatic rifle, hand grenades, a fucking bazooka, and even a pencil to rather swiftly dispose of people. It's one of those things that, upon first viewing, might slide by most viewers, but that freakish geeks (like me) might notice and may even become a point of ridicule when the opening-weekend fever cools and people really watch the movie with a more critical eye on repeated viewings. Then again, I can also assume that everything that comes out of the Joker's famously carved mouth is pretty much an inflammatory lie or a contradiction, so I guess it makes sense in that anarchy kind of way.
But it is still Bale, even with less screentime, that carries the weight of this movie. His ability to shift from the seemingly carefree and clueless playboy to the tormented, reluctant dragon is the hinge that pulls everything else together, and he's done it in complete contrast to Ledger's performance. While Ledger is doing Lovitz-style "Acting!" Bale is much less affected and more naturalistic. (Well, as unaffected and naturalistic as a guy in a rubber batsuit using a fake voice to growl can be. Parameters, still keep the parameters in mind.) But it is exactly his paradoxical easy tension which is what grounds the movie and pulls it back into perspective and makes the pieces of Nolan's realistic landscape fall into place.
I keep using the term "paradox" because that's exactly what's at the heart of this movie. It is Bruce's personal desires pitted against Batman's public sense of duty that cause the deepest rifts here. The overarching "moral" questions hit him hardest because it truly divides this man and his alter ego. (Again, another stroke of genius in the Nolans' script.) And Bale manages to merge the two with a simmering, controlled intensity.
Most notably, though, I trust that the Nolan brothers DO actually know where they're going with the third installment, since they worked so hard and carefully mapped this one to end as it did. Without question, this was the movie that this franchise needed right now. But even more importantly, this is a movie that Batman deserves.