Perhaps the summer’s most anticipated film lands in theaters today to the record-breaking advance ticket sales of dedicated fans and those newly curious alike. But what awaits in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” isn’t merely a study in the psychology of a nearly 70-year-old character tailored to the familiar; instead audiences will be met with an accessible tale of deep and painful truths, a unique vision of hope in the face of seemingly aimless villainy, a new staple alongside the greatest of tragedies — in any medium.
Picking up right where 2005’s “Batman Begins” left off, Gotham City is rebuilding itself in the wake of criminal warfare, infrastructural corruption and weakened, nearly vanquished public spirits. Right off the bat (no pun intended), the film begins to make good on the promise of Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) at the end of the first film — escalation — as a new criminal mastermind has begun to systematically relieve the mob of its accrued earnings, bank by bank, and with a taste for theatricality.
The Joker (Heath Ledger) is revealed in the film’s opening scene (unveiled in December as an IMAX “prequel” with prints of “I Am Legend”) as a methodical, macabre merchant of chaos, yes, but with an ingenious sort of order and preparation that seems to fly in the face of his later insistence on a subscription to bedlam. But his own hypocrisies aren’t on the agenda, as he later exhibits to dramatic effect.
Gotham itself has been provided a sliver of hope amongst the former and upcoming strife of the city in the form of district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a “white knight” grinding away at the underbelly of the city and systematically cleansing the streets. The vigilantism of the outlaw Batman is on the table as well, but Dent is smart enough to understand that Gotham is responsible for the Dark Knight’s existence, having sat silent as the city slowly rotted from within.
Dent’s romantic sights have been set on Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, in a role originated by Katie Holmes) as the two lawyers form a power couple of sorts. But Rachel made a promise long ago to Bruce Wayne that when the city finally has no need for the Batman, she would be ready to make the leap in the billionaire playboy’s arms. Or has she moved on?
In Dent, Wayne sees that spark of hope that soon — perhaps sooner than he had originally anticipated — he would be able to hang up this monster forged in the fires of a different Gotham and live a normal existence. And therein lie the seeds of heartbreaking disappointment and hard realities awaiting the characters of “The Dark Knight.”
As the Joker moves through the narrative, exposing the flaws of humanity and demanding the dismantling of the Batman, he eventually locks into a crash course with that inevitable but still gut-wrenching conclusion. He is the impetus for the discouragement and broken optimism of a city on the mend. But perhaps his most thorough calculations didn’t provide for the continually unanticipated vibrancy of the human spirit.
In “The Dark Knight” Christopher Nolan has, with the help of writers Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer, created a cinematic experience that doesn’t elevate the superhero genre so much as supersede it and move on without it. Comparisons to the greatest of crime sagas would not be out of bounds, but they would also lose sight of mechanisms in place that nonetheless ground the subject matter in a state of hyper-reality that no other film has even felt the need to aspire to.
However, at 150 minutes and some change, the film is certainly a robust piece of work. While there is scarcely a frame one might consider expendable, the narrative nonetheless begins to drag in its final act. A desire for tightness settles in, leaving the inclination that portions of the story might have been better saved for later endeavors.
But such notions nonetheless work against the framework the screenplay has tailored to its message and thematic scope. This is simply the scale for which “The Dark Knight” was meant, despite the sense that it has outgrown that framework and wishes to play on a larger canvas.
Heath Ledger’s much-anticipated portrayal does not disappoint in the slightest. As a rogue conveyor of madness and recreational assault, he finds levels in at least two scenes that point to a deeper desire for justice, much like the Batman. But his vision is a sickening sort of justice that would have Gotham’s citizenry faced with its flaws and then put out of its misery. The Yin and Yang are unmistakable.
Amid an interrogation sequence with the avenger, Ledger really sinks his teeth into the cleverly origin-less role. “I don’t want to kill you,” he says. “You complete me.” His inflections, maniacal throughout the film until that point, fade into the background as he spews sincere, borderline reasonable philosophy. Ditto a later sequence during which he declares himself “a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. I just do things,” he says.
It is a rather exceptional performance that hopefully won’t be drowned out by the more hyperbolic considerations. It is a portrayal that glides over the top, but knows where that line is and how to come back, and it is consistently surprising. The sadness of Ledger’s fate settles in most, however, in his final encounter. “I feel like we’re destined to do this forever,” he says, exasperated, but merely catching his breath so he can play again.
As Bruce Wayne and his feared alter ego, Christian Bale elevates his work to a different plane. But this film isn’t about Batman. In so much as the character has an arc (as he rightly should) Wayne learns his limits. He tiptoes up to that infamous line of his own design and discovers the sacrifices he has to make in order to maintain his position on one side of it.
By the film’s end, the Batman has been positioned as something more than a hero; he has knowingly given himself over to be what he has to be to protect the city he loves. He has taken his rightful place as Gotham’s ambiguous protector – “a dark knight.”
Aaron Eckhart seems born for the role of Harvey Dent because the actor has the ability to wear righteousness like a tailored suit. When his character meets a violent and inevitable transformation, he seems slightly unable to understand where to take the mind of his new role. But perhaps that is fitting in the wake of such trauma. The tragedy his arc represents fits hand in hand with overall themes of balance and justice at play in the Batman films, and from here, the sky is the limit for the character.
Gary Oldman, meanwhile, offers the unsung performance of the film, driving the most grounded character home and providing, perhaps, the most human portrayal of the franchise. Maggie Gyllenhaal is uneasy with the role of Rachel Dawes, seemingly confused as to her motivations; dare one say Katie Holmes had a better grasp, and the necessary sass, to convey what has, in both films, proven an under-written character.
Meanwhile, Michael Caine as the ever-poignant butler Alfred Pennyworth and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox (Q to Batman’s Bond) provide father figures of sorts that go subtle steps beyond their duties in “Batman Begins.”
And to briefly address the action sequences (which have been filmed with IMAX technology): they are as captivating as one might expect. There are solitary shots that can steal one’s breath and entire sequences that will force the viewer deep into his or her seat, as the film seems to overwhelm in all the right ways.
Christopher Nolan has made a brief career of exploring characters built upon their somber, in some instances twisted pasts, however distant or immediate. Cases could be made for “Memento,” “Insomnia,” “Batman Begins” certainly, and even the more complicated “The Prestige.” He makes good on that string in “The Dark Knight” as the film becomes less about the characters and more about the environment they inhabit.
The real hero of “The Dark Knight” is Gotham City. And just like Leonard Shelby, just like Will Dormer, similar to Robert Angier and, indeed, Bruce Wayne, the city is forced to discover where it stands en route to putting the past where it belongs and finding a way to push into the dawn of a new day. The tragedies of characters within are secondary to that struggle for therapeutic self-recovery, and the Batman knows that. By the end of this epic endeavor, so do those who can help the city to those ends.
“Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”
This review will be followed by “The Dark Knight”: The Geek Review later today. The latter will be a spoiler entry which also addresses the film’s handling of the source material, aspects the writer felt better reserved for a separate filing.