Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight: Pitch black

The Dark Knight (2008) • View trailer for The Dark Knight
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and a relentlessly grim tone
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.18.08
Buy DVD: The Dark Knight • Buy Blu-Ray: The Dark Knight (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]

This one has teeth.

Sharp teeth.
Determined to extract some information from the jailed Joker (Heath Ledger),
Batman (Christian Bale) unexpectedly appears in the criminal's cell, hoping
to startle him into a confession. But the Joker doesn't startle easily — indeed,
not at all — and this battle of wits is only beginning.

Patrons accustomed to a certain frivolous atmosphere from superhero movies — a larger-than-life approach to both characterization and storyline, with elements so fantastic that emotional engagement remains difficult, if even superfluous — are in for a nasty surprise with The Dark Knight.

This newest, exceedingly well-named entry in the Batman franchise is extremely dark indeed, not to mention uncomfortably realistic, its story an acutely perceptive dissection of humanity's frailties and failings. Longtime comic book fans who've hungered for a cinematic re-boot to match the grim tone of Frank Miller's graphic novels can rejoice: This is, without question, the way Batman was intended to be presented.

Director/co-writer Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale made a serious step in the proper direction with 2005's Batman Begins, although that film suffered a bit from the need to trace the character's origins and develop fresh exposition. With that foundation sufficiently established, though, they've now unleashed — and that really is the proper word — a macabre, brooding and at times agonizingly suspenseful sequel that deserves to be called a serious drama.

Comic book storylines undergo a metamorphosis every decade or so, as new writers struggle to inject fresh issues into franchise characters who, to a certain degree, cannot change all that much. It's an intriguing challenge, and one current permutation involves trying to confront the real-world social implications of having a superhero in town. (Will Smith's Hancock also covers this territory, albeit quite badly.)

The current and quite seductive concept can be viewed as a corollary to the frustrating economic truism that expenditures always rise to meet income: Because Nature abhors a vacuum, a metropolis systematically cleansed of crime by a powerful vigilante will, as an inevitable side effect, produce ever-more-determined villains. In other words, supervillains rise up to wage war against superheroes ... not the other way around.

And so The Dark Knight begins — its methodical and psychologically astute script by Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer — as Bruce Wayne's dour alter-ego joins dedicated Gotham City cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and forthright new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in an ambitious plan to bring the local mob to its knees, once and for all.

Their efforts are effective, to a degree, and the various mob bosses — the most frequent face being Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts, at his smarmy best) — find themselves backed into a corner and perhaps more willing to consider a previously unthinkable option:

The enthusiastic, if unpredictable, involvement of a vicious and deranged madman who has dubbed himself The Joker (Heath Ledger).

During interviews given subsequent to Ledger's untimely death, Christopher Nolan has spoken at length, and with great admiration, of the actor's work in this, one of his final films. We expect such hyperbole as a new movie's release looms; it's part of the obligatory media blitz.

Well, Nolan did not overstate. Hell, he couldn't possibly have done so.

Ledger's performance is by turns chilling, fascinating and very, very scary. And I don't mean scary in a frivolous, movie-monster sense; I mean frightening because this maniac's insane babblings about humanity's thin hold on respectful social behavior sound all too credible, particularly in an era of irrational road rage and resurrected racism.

This is a bad guy for the ages: a memorable icon of evil on par with Robert Mitchum's psychotic religious fanatic in 1955's Night of the Hunter ... a figure still fueling nightmares half a century later.

Ledger's Joker is likely to resonate just as long.

It's a fearsome, all-consuming performance, the character's various tics and behavioral quirks all the more unsettling for the intensity of Ledger's talent. It's Oscar-worthy work: Peer admiration almost certainly will get him a posthumous nomination, and sentiment — along with the certain knowledge of watching a genius at work — likely will grant him the award.

This is no strutting buffoon, with apologies to Jack Nicholson; Ledger's Joker has the formidable, hypnotic intensity of Charles Manson. We've no trouble believing this character can hold a room laden with gun-toting gangsters, when he so easily mesmerizes a movie theater filled with hundreds of viewers.

And, similarly, we forgive the character's subsequent ability to seemingly be everywhere at once, and to withstand the sort of nonsensical physical punishment that still — even in this more realistic depiction — remains de rigueur in action movies. Ledger makes us believe that this maniac's very derangement renders him as invulnerable as Batman's reinforced costume makes him.

The Joker, in service of the Gotham mobs, issues a very simple public boast: He promises to kill at least one Gothamite per day, until Batman removes his mask and exposes himself to the world.

Within just a few days, the situation has become dire, and Bruce Wayne is forced to wonder whether it wouldn't be better to accede to the maniac's demand. The greater Gotham public, reacting with the panicky terror of mob rule, becomes ever more vocal in its demand that Batman turn himself in.

Dent, a lone public voice warning of the dangerous precedent likely to be established by dealing with a terrorist, finds himself increasingly outgunned.

And when The Joker and Batman finally meet, as they must, the former gleefully presses the advantage he'll always have, because — even as an outlaw — Batman is a moral being who will not, cannot kill. To do so would forever taint his soul, and make him every bit as bad as the opponents he has sworn to eradicate. And yet The Joker makes it clear that killing him is the only way to stop him.

All of which leads to the film's signature line, heard more than once: "You either die a hero ... or live long enough to see yourself become the villain."

One does not expect such deep philosophical conflict from a superhero movie ... but The Dark Knight is just getting started.

This film's score, a collaborative effort from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, has much to do with the nervous tension that pervades this entire story, and indeed builds in intensity until you'll be ready to scream. The music lacks the heroic fanfare so common to such movies; gone are any traces of a "Batman theme" such as Danny Elfman concocted.

The music here is throbbing, intense and deeply unsettling: a brilliantly applied pulsebeat that amplifies the story's pressure-cooker fury much like John Williams' spare themes in Munich.

Bale's twin performances — Bruce Wayne is, by necessity, far removed from Batman — may lack the intensity of Ledger's work, but the result is no less engaging. Wayne's duality always is the key issue: the need for the public billionaire philanthropist to appear like a playboy fop to casual acquaintances, while at the same time revealing the steely intensity that we viewers know exists behind his ever-troubled gaze. Bale nails the necessary mix.

Former girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, a vastly superior replacement for Katie Holmes in this part), who knows of Bruce's double life, even challenges him on the artifice that goes into his every word. When Bruce throws a lavish big-spender party in order to boost Harvey Dent's political career, the billionaire head of Wayne Industries introduces the district attorney with a speech that could be viewed as mocking.

"Harvey doesn't know if you're making fun of him," Rachel accuses, "but I do."

Bruce protests, but we're left to wonder: Can this man, for whom trust comes so reluctantly, really make permanent professional alliances?

Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman return as, respectively, Alfred the butler and Wayne Industries engineering genius Lucius Fox. Both serve as Bruce's moral bellwethers; both challenge his views of right and wrong. Both also give this film additional gravitas by their mere presence, but it goes further than that: Both are granted superb and thoughtful lines, which they deliver impeccably.

Lest you think the film is solely emotional angst, rest assured that the script includes plenty of action. A side trip to Hong Kong shows Batman at his stealthy best, and the heavily armored Batmobile earns its keep, as does this film's new toy: the two-wheeled (monster wheels, mind you) Bat-Pod, a motorcycle-esque beast capable of its own fantastic maneuvers.

I'd call this film perfect, but for a third-act romp into the disquieting realm of surveillance technology that — unlike any other moment in the film — looks and sounds too much like a scolding reference to our own real-world eavesdropping abuses. And the use of this new tech, as applied during a climactic fight, is too visually confusing; it's the only time Nolan allows his film to be overwhelmed by the sort of hokey gadgetry he works so hard to avoid most of the time.

Additionally — although this may have been the fault of the Sacramento theater that screened Wednesday's preview — the sound mix is annoying. Too many important sections of quiet dialogue are wholly obscured by the ominous music and thumping sound effects, most crucially the regretful comments made as Batman races off into the night, alone again, at the film's end. It's obviously an important speech, but I couldn't hear a word of it.

Small stuff, though. On the greater scale, The Dark Knight is a superior film, and one likely to change the way we view superhero movies from this point forward.

At long last, Batman has arrived.

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