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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Film: The Dark Knight -- BatBush, CheneyFace and Osama Bin Joker

"What the...who left gum on the floor?"

Film Review by Noah Mallin

There are some spoilers ahead so if you're still a Bat-virgin and don't want to know what awaits... don't read!

The Dark Knight
, Christopher Nolan's blockbuster follow-up to 2005's excellent Batman Begins, is perhaps the darkest and strangest film to ever have a Pizza Hut tie-in pizza. In Nolan's hands Batman becomes a tough noir crime story -- if not Godfather II as some critics have suggested its at least the equal of The Departed, The Untouchables or even Reservoir Dogs and packs some of Scorsese's visceral wallop. The Spiderman films are saccharine kid's stuff by comparison.

A great deal of attention has been given to Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker -- a nightmarish romp that leaves Nicholson's version in the camp dust with Cesar Romero's TV portrayal of the role. Ledger is a force unto himself and he elevates every scene he's in. His untimely demise is easily pushed aside by the force of his striking work here. Like Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men (another genre-defying film that The Dark Knight shares some kinship with) , backstory is irrelevant -- The Joker is chaos, pure and simple. His shifting explanations as to how he earned his trademark scars are a clever character development in themselves -- as is the literally lip-smacking relish with which Ledger conveys them.

This is not to slight the rest of an excellent cast. Christian Bale continues to find the pleasure in playing a smirking asshole playboy by day and a hard-ass lone avenger at night. Gary Oldman gets substantially more to do in this installment and as always he makes it count. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine both get to put more meat on their character's as well and Maggie Gyllenhaal is a tremendous improvement over Katie Homes' wan perf as Rachel Dawes.

The film is chock full of ideas and surprises, all of which is welcome in a summer which has had its share of better than average poporn flicks (Iron Man and Wall-E come to mind). It's astounding that a debate is now raging in the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic over whether Bush is in fact like Batman is in the film -- fighting a remorseless terrorist and sometimes having to bend the law to do so. Batman is willing to take on the opprobrium of Gotham knowing that he has to operate outside the law to get things done, just as smirking asshole playboy President Bush is a world pariah for breaking a few eggs in making his eggshell-y Iraq omelet.

This argument, which the WSJ seemed to find flattering to Bush, is actually indicative of the low regard some neo-cons have for the Presidency. One of the central points of The Dark Knight is that Batman understands the importance of the law, and that being an unelected vigilante has a different set of responsibilities than being an elected public official. Batman himself chooses which lines to cross and the weight of the responsibility of having no check or balance on him is staggering -- he wants it to end. The Joker becomes his check, the lawless criminal to the lawless vigilante. Andrew Klavan, in writing his editorial betrays the neo-con conception of the white house as an imperial Wayne Industries with no need to answer to anyone. Bush didn't choose to wear the mantle of an outcast, it was thrust on him by a disgusted public.

Which brings us to Aaron Eckhart as District Attorney Harvey Dent. Both Batman and Gordon see Eckhart as a white knight (pun intended) official response to Gotham's lawlessness, a crusading public official who will do the right thing and act as a symbol of the power of the law. Eckhart finds the tinge of self-absorption that powers the man perfectly while also making him genuinely heroic and likable. Like Batman, Eckhart has a code but its a bit more slippery and in the end permeable. His cute coin-flipping trick (both sides have heads so he wins either way) speaks to an underlying my-way-or-the-highway ethos and becomes darker and more sinister as the movie goes on. In the end, this man who has represented hope becomes deformed and twisted by his battle with chaos, turning into a perversion of the steadiness of justice he once upheld, his coin now akin to the one Javier Bardem used to such menacing effect in No Country. Now that sounds like Bush. Only Eckhart starts out likable.

Michael Caine is quoted in this week's Entertainment Weekly as saying, and I'm paraphrasing, Superman is how Americans see themselves and Batman is how the rest of the world sees America. This may be a bit much but there is something to this. Nolan's film stirs up a little bit of everything that has made Americans and the rest of the world so uneasy about the so-called "war on terror"-- Batman uses cellphones to spy on everyone in Gotham to the outrage of Freeman's character, there are a few scenes that explore the limits of torture and a memorable sequence with two boats full of doomed passengers that seems to question the old "attack them over there so they don't come here" doctrine.

For all the polemical bromides Hollywood has tried to get viewers to chew on about the war in Iraq, it may actually be a Summer popcorn film that raises the most questions, and leaves viewers with the most uneasiness.

There are flaws here to be sure. As in Nolan's first bat-outing, some of the editing in the action sequences is overly hyperkinetic. There is a lingering feeling that despite how exciting some of those action sequences are (the one with a semi versus Batman's Tumbler is a doozy) the filmakers want to get back to the scenes with people in them. Indeed, a few more of those scenes would add depth to some of the third act's twists, including Dent's transformation which satisfies thematically but still feels a little underbaked. Granted the movie is two and a half hours and more time with Eckhart could slow down what feels like a well-paced film.

The production values are brilliant, using even more of Chicago to break out of the setbound feel that these films tend to have. Where Spiderman 3 seemed to take place inside a video game with last year's graphics card this has a gut punching realism, particularly in the aerial shots.

It's too early to add this to the pantheon as some critics have already done -- no it's not The Godfather. It is however the best superhero film ever -- with depth, some wit, and a lot of unsettling ideas and images that keep the mind chewing for quite some time afterwards.


Carlos said...

Hi Noah! This is timely, I saw 'The Dark Knight' just last night. What a fantastic romp through film noir that was. Didn't get to see Bats do much detecting, but I seriously enjoyed every one of those. . ..what 160 minutes?? Long. Really long, but I was left wanting more.

I completely agree that Heath runs away with this performance. His cackle still took me back to Caesar and Jack sometimes, but only briefly because he was far more menacing.

I hadn't heard Michael Caine's comment before reading it here, interesting. As is your comparison to the current heads of state down south. Very interesting comparison and I'm getting that you find it upsetting people were proud of the Batcheney likenesses. I really do too. Batman has his code, understands the burden of being his own lawmaker. . . well you covered this better than I could. I agree!

re: editing. I thought the fight sequences were supposed to be edited better in this version, but yes again, like in 'Begins' I was lost until someone hit the ground for a lot of it. Still, having been trained as a kind of ninja in this Nolan-bent lore, Batman should probably move faster, I'd just like to see it!

Awesome review, the film gave me much to think about and is not fluffy at all. I think I'm actually going to have to see it again. Some of the 'he's not the hero we need, but the hero we want', stuff I found a bit hokey and I can't even remember it right. Maybe it's just not memorable writing in those particular cases. For the most part though, really enjoyed the script.

Little side note: Seems everyone was catching Bale's gruff delivery at some point or other! I heard Two -face do it, even Commissioner Gordon sounded like him! "I'm sorry. For EVERYTHING". :p

Fun fun fun. Great Film. Great Batman story.

Slothrop said...

Hi Carlos! It's always good to hear from North of the border. You're dead-on with the gruff delivery -- it was a very hoarse film! I know some people who had trouble hearing the dialog interestingly enough though I had no trouble whatsoever...