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Saturday, July 26, 2008

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) - Christopher Nolan

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last six months, the marketing for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight has been gaining frantic momentum. The film finally got it’s release in the last week. The Dark Knight is the sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins, the film that resurrected the franchise after it was beaten to a horrible neon death by Joel Schumacher. The film, and it’s sequel, take a whole different approach to the subject matter, aiming for films more grounded in ‘reality’ than the whole gothic approach established in Burton’s movies. And while it may be difficult, I’ll resist the urge to descend into hyperbolic fanboy ranting when I talk about the film.

The Dark Knight sees Batman dealing with the problems of escalation which he and Jim Gordon discussed at the end of Batman Begins. Crime in Gotham is taken to a whole new level when a character known only as The Joker begins his campaign to bring chaos to the order in Gotham. However, the new district atourney, Harvey Dent is Gotham’s shining knight. He’s incorruptible and determined to bring a new age to Gotham. Seeing this, Bruce Wayne begins to envision an end to his crusade. Gotham will no longer need a hero in him. They’ll have a public hero in Harvey Dent.

It’s very difficult to know where to begin with The Dark Knight. The thing that has people talking the most is Heath Ledger’s performance. A pretty vigorous campaign has been launched to see the actor at least nominated for an Academy Award. While I think that’s all rather stupid, I will admit, his performance is astonishing. I remember when he was cast, many people doubted the actor could pull it off. I did raise an eyebrow, but I maintained that Nolan knew what he was doing. And he certainly has proved the doubters wrong. Ledger’s Joker is quite unlike any comic book villain put to screen. Forget Nicholson’s now camp gay uncle Joker from 1989’s Batman. This Joker is formidable. He does get laughs, but the laughs for the most part are out of shock. Ledger spent a great deal of time becoming the character, and every nuance shows how deeply he immersed himself in the role.

And while Ledger is the face and body of the Joker, a great deal of credit must go to Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan for writing the character. What I found most interesting about their script is that when he’s off screen, even then the sense of malice created by the Joker lingers over proceedings. To that end, the point can be made that the Joker almost overshadows the entire film. Which, if treated incorrectly, could have spelled disaster for the movie. However, the Nolans’ writing is meticulous. Some people have complained that the film is too long. I couldn’t disagree more. It is long. But the pace is relentless. There’s plenty to cram in, and if I was to have one complaint about the film’s running time it would be that the inclusion of Two-Face was a little brief. Two-Face is, for me, is second only to the Joker as Batman’s most compelling villain. He was once a pillar of virtue who, through tragic events, turns to the dark side. He’s obsessed with chance, and this makes for a very compelling character. Aaron Eckhart, who plays Dent certainly delivers a compelling performance. He’s dynamic and energetic, but he also has an edge. An edge the Joker seems determined to exploit. It’s a shame Two-Face makes such a brief appearance, because Eckhart certainly makes him a character worthy of a film by himself.

On the other side of the coin (see what I did there?) we have Christian Bale and Gary Oldman returning as the good, Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jim Gordon. Something that was only touched upon in the last film was Bruce Wayne’s billionaire playboy lifestyle. In The Dark Knight, we get a better view of Wayne’s lifestyle. Bale delivers the goods here, certainly carrying across the cocksure attitude Wayne has developed to throw off suspicions that he is Batman. The Bat-voice is back again. It’s a little strong at the start of the film, but eases up and never becomes too much of a hindrance. Gary Oldman delivers the second best performance of the film. It’s a very understated performance, and it’s so subtle, it almost goes unnoticed. But Oldman’s presence is so integral to the success of the film that there would be a huge void were his character removed. In a film that’s jam packed full of larger than life characters, it’s a stand out performance to have someone so real as Gordon.

Nolan’s direction is meticulous. He stated that Michael Mann’s Heat was a great inspiration for The Dark Knight, and you certainly get that impression watching the film. As with Heat, the pace moves very quickly, with not one scene wasted with pointless exposition. As we’ve come to expect from Nolan’s films, there are some sleights of hand in the writing. Nolan seems to delight in misdirection, and it’s no different in this film. There are many themes touched upon in the film. Light and dark. The question of the goodness in human nature. At moments, the morality is with little subtlety. But the film never gets too heavy handed. It’s also a beautifully shot film. Wally Pfister has developed a relationship with Nolan since Memento, and their combined efforts make for a visually stunning piece of film. Special mention must be made for the score of the film. James Newton Howard’s themes return for the film, but this time Hans Zimmer completes the score. For the Joker, he uses one simple note played out on violins. It’s incredibly ominous, and just added to the menace of the Joker.

As a comic book film, The Dark Knight is without a doubt the finest comic book adaptation put to screen. The Batman animated series from the 1990s was one of the most faithful depictions of the character, and this film is as close to that series as you’re ever going to see. But the film transcends the pigeon holing that comes with the words ‘comic book movie.’ Sure, it’s a film about a guy who dresses up as a bat and hunts down a murderous clown. But it’s as good as any crime drama you’re likely to see. The hype surrounding Ledger’s Joker is not exaggerated. He is every bit as good as you’re hearing. He’s incredibly menacing, yet still humorous as you’d expect from the character. He’s the best thing about the very strong ensemble cast. There are a few elements I haven’t covered. The fact that we see Batman as a detective, the essence of what the Batman character is. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance as Rachael Dawes, which is vastly superior to Katie Holmes’ performance in Batman Begins. The superb chase through Gotham streets, one of the stand out action sequences not only in the film, but this year. But to cover these things would require another review by itself. The Dark Knight is incredibly entertaining and compelling. As well as being the best film of the summer it’s one of the best of the year. It’s the finest of all comic book films.



Marin Mandir said...

A 10 out of 10? Hmmm...Is it really that good? I plan to see the film too, if anything, just to see how it got to IMDb's 250 no. 1 spot.

Aidan said...

Yowza. I thought it was about as good as Batman Begins. Which is to say I thought it was slightly above average. The mobile phone sonar machine was my mutt in the jungle moment.

That said, the plot itself was excellent, I just felt the film didn't know what to do with it. It seems more suited to a graphic novel where it would have more room to breath. With that in mind I just bought The Dark Knight Returns, which I look forward to reading.

I'd give it a 7.5 out of 10 and if I was forced to use proper full numbers, an 8.

J Luis Rivera said...

I thought it rocked, although i do feel that Eckhart was the one who delivered the best performance. I truly hope that he returns in a third one, if it gets made.

Peter Slattery said...

Okay, I will admit, it's not entirely flawless. No film is. But as it is, it's the best example of a film of it's type. The casting is as close to the ideal Batman cast you'll ever see, the story, while heavy, is compelling, the plot is relentless and the action is spectacular. For those reasons, I rate it 10. I don't think it should be 1 on the IMDB 250, but that list is frought with problems anyway.

Moondog said...

Great review Pete, spot on. But best comic book movie of all time? Methinks the original Superman would have a shout there. Definitely a contender though, loved it.
On the flip-mode, just sent my parents to see Wall-E yesterday. They didn't like it.
-shakes head-

Peter Slattery said...

Good Jesus. Are you sure you weren't adopted?

Moondog said...

No Pete, I'm not sure. I'm not sure at all.
-Shakes head-