, 152 min, 2008
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan Nolan (screenplay) and Christopher Nolan (screenplay), Christopher Nolan (story) & David S. Goyer (story), Bob Kane (characters)
Stars: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a massive, astonishing crime epic on the level of Heat (1995) and The Departed (2006) that weaves a story with the richness of great fiction. At 152 minutes, it breezes right by while engaging and enveloping us in its tale of larger than life criminals and law enforcers. It is not a superhero movie, but it’s the best of its ilk. It’s not just a Batman story, or a simple black and white tale of good vs. evil, though those are elements involved in the plot. Ultimately, this is a story about the morality and immorality that lie in the gray areas.
After a remarkable opening bank robbery sequence during which we meet our villain, it’s revealed that the mob of Gotham City is being strong-armed on both sides not only by Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, terrific as usual) and his new DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, a new and welcome addition to the ensemble), but also a mysterious and eccentric new figure called The Joker. Meanwhile, Batman is being impersonated by citizens and criminals alike who want to help Gotham after he put out a plea to its denizens to stand up against crime. This brings a little bad press to his name it seems (Cillian Murphy appears briefly as Scarecrow again early on). The mob boss (Eric Roberts) is struggling with potential incarceration from the zealous DA and prosecutor Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes). Batman is looking forward to the day when he can be replaced full-time and be with his love (Gyllenhaal) but she’s practically engaged to Harvey Dent. What’s a bat to do?
Well, turns out anarchy is on the horizon in the form of the Joker, and the late Heath Ledger gives the greatest performance of this film and his short career. Christian Bale is almost his equal as Batman, backed by butler Alfred (the fine Michael Caine) and the Q to his James Bond, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, lending class to any proceedings). But back to Ledger. His soulless sociopath/psychotic manages to be the very soul of this movie. He is magnetic and frightening, funny and deeply disturbed. Like the young torturer/murderers in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, he has no code of ethics and no origin. No rhyme, no reason. He sees in Batman the flipside of the coin if you will, “a freak like me.” However, the Joker plays by his whims (“Do I look like a guy with a plan?”). He’s modest, however, because his plan is anarchy. At his root, he is in love with the very notion of chaos, and how it can be created by simply putting Gotham’s citizenry in constant states of terror and impending doom. If he can keep the cops and the bat on their toes, he wins. It’s a game to him.
The film’s somewhat obvious model (structurally, I think) is Heat, that masterpiece of crime epic brilliance. You can see it in the opening bank robbery, in the 20 minute IMAX-camera-filmed chase scene through the highways and byways of Gotham that is at the film’s center, and in an interrogation scene (not as quiet as De Niro and Pacino’s now classic coffee shop conversation) in which Batman and his nemesis get down to brass tacks and really come to understand one another.
So how can a moral beacon of good like Batman even hope to compete with a villain of this magnitude? Will he sink to his level? Where is the line between what’s permissable to get the bad guy, and what’s going too far? How does he decide what actions are on what side of this so-called line? These are the sorts of moral/immoral questions at the film’s heart, as I alluded to previously, and Nolan and co-screenwriter/brother Jonathan (Memento and Following) play these kinds of thought-provoking and interesting notes to the hilt. This is an actually thought-provoking (as well as visually splendid and exciting) piece of pop entertainment. Yet its the moral questions that make this something more. You actually leave the theater applauding Batman’s (and the filmmakers’) final decisions, even if you find yourself wondering if you’d have it in you to make that call. Vengeance is easy, justice is trickier.
This film was (of course) dedicated to Ledger, whose posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (if not Lead!) should be in the mail to his bereaved right now! He creates a dizzying, maniacal, whirling catastrophe of a villain and you actually forget it’s Ledger playing him for much of the film. In the end, I remembered it was him, and then that he was dead, and then I found myself missing him because this was his second to last film (a Terry Gilliam work calledThe Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is coming later this year or next). He is the blood, guts, heart and soul of this picture, and on the basis of this performance, he had so much more promise and should be sorely missed. His performance, and the film, are among the very best of the year.
Note: The film was nominated for 8 Oscars and won 2 – Best Sound Editing and the much deserved (posthumous) award for Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger.