Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Dark Knight / **** (PG-13)

Bruce Wayne/Batman: Christian Bale
The Joker: Heath Ledger
Harvey Dent: Aaron Eckhart
Rachel Dawes: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Lieutenant Gordon: Gary Oldman
Alfred: Michael Caine
Lucius Fox: Morgan Freeman
Salvatore Maroni: Eric Roberts

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan & David S. Goyer. Based on characters appearing in comic books published by DC Comics. Batman created by Bob Kane. Running time: 152 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and some menace).

“The night is always darkest before the dawn.”

I don’t know if the dawn will ever come for Gotham City. If “The Dark Knight” is any indication, it’s going to be an Alaskan winter’s night. But that is often the way it is in second installments of successful movie franchises. I suppose “The Dark Knight” is technically the sixth or seventh film in the Batman franchise—depending on where you start counting—but it is the second in the reinvention of the character set in motion by co-writer/director Christopher Nolan with 2005’s “Batman Begins”. Like other great second installments—such as “The Godfather, Part II”, “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”, or “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”—“The Dark Knight” plays as if it will be the bleakest and most complex entry into the series.

The movie is complex in its plot structure and psychological depths. Its plot is labyrinthine in how it winds its way to its ultimate outcome. It begins with one of the strangest bank heists ever to be put to film and ends with a heroic sacrifice that leaves the hero a villain in the minds of the people he has sworn to protect. Every scene in between is a link in one giant chain that has a singular finite purpose of defining everything that makes Batman one of the most important literary creations of our turbulent industrialized world. No character’s action is without purpose. No moment is wasted. Christopher and his brother Jonathan Nolan have crafted the most intensely engaging superhero movie ever made and one of the more riveting plot structures in any film.

There are very few points where this film even resembles a superhero movie. It has its action sequences, digital effects and stunts; but unlike most comic book movies these are the backgrounds, not the focus. Here the action serves the plot rather than the other way around. There is that initial bank robbery by Gotham’s latest villain The Joker, a daring kidnapping that takes place in the high rises of Hong Kong, an extended chase sequence which sees the destruction of countless vehicles, and even a cameo appearance by a villain from the previous film, The Scarecrow. But the way Batman deals with Scarecrow is reflective of the movie’s overall approach to typical superhero clich├ęs. It is a necessity that Batman must engage them, but he really is above them and has better things to do with his time.

It is surprising how much better “The Dark Knight” uses its time compared to typical action fare. The Nolans provide “The Dark Knight” with an intricate study of madness and power, perception and reality, right and wrong. Everything is in conflict in Gotham City. The Batman clashes with The Joker. The police engage in monetary warfare with the mob. The new District Attorney Harvey Dent becomes Gotham’s new champion by working within the legal system instead of breaking the law like the vigilante Batman. Bruce Wayne’s confidant and sole caretaker Alfred argues with him about how and why he should be Batman. Bruce sees his lover Rachel Dawes in the arms of the one man in Gotham who may be better than Batman. Mob boss Salvatore Maroni wants the Joker dead until he sees how Joker’s chaos can work to his advantage. Dent struggles with his own inner demons to stay on the path of righteousness. And Bruce doesn’t even seem to like being Batman anymore.

The entire movie is a psychological struggle that the Nolans immerse the audience in so thoroughly we find ourselves struggling with the same issues as the characters. At one point even the citizens of Gotham as a whole are asked to make a moral choice that is almost unimaginable to ask even of characters in a movie. We don’t know what the people will choose, because we don’t know what we would do ourselves.

The guiding force of the movie is Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker. Ledger (“Brokeback Mountain”) creates one of the few truly unique characters in film. The Joker is certifiably insane, but he is also incredibly intelligent, singularly minded and not completely lacking in empathy despite the fact that no real background is offered on how he came to be. There is a scene where Joker sits down with all the mob bosses to offer his plan. This is the scene where all the posthumous Oscar buzz has stemmed from for the late actor. Here he demonstrates Joker’s total spontaneity simultaneously with his meticulous planning just in the way he addresses these other criminals. There is no doubt that this man is as formidable as they come.

But while the Joker’s spirit may guide the film, it is hardly the focal point. That focus belongs to The Batman’s, Lieutenant Jim Gordon’s, and Harvey Dent’s crusade to vanquish the last vestiges of Gotham’s crime syndicate from the city. But the capriciousness of the Joker eventually sends them on divergent paths. Gary Oldman (“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”) anchors the just by keeping Gordon beyond reproach, while Batman and Dent struggle with their individual moralities. Aaron Eckhart (“Thank You For Smoking”) is a wonderful choice for the white knight DA. He is instantly likeable yet suggests anger beneath without betraying Dent’s good intentions. And Christian Bale continues to prove he is the best casting of Bruce Wayne/Batman yet with his intense concern and isolated demeanor.

Even the minor subplot points suggest the fear and distrust of the world reflected in Gotham City. Morgan Freeman (“Wanted”) steps up his role as WayneCorp CEO Lucius Fox in this episode with two subplots. One involves an employee who thinks he has discovered the identity of Batman and wants to blackmail the corporation. The other involves one of Fox’s inventions that he feels Batman might be using to an unethical degree. The scenes with Freeman and Bale are a particular pleasure in the way they inject some much needed humor into the story and illustrate the fragile line of justice upon which Batman operates.

While Wayne’s professional relationships with both Fox and his trusty servant Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine reprising his role from the previous film) add some levity, and even The Joker provides a few dark laughs, there is a foreboding sense infused in every line and image here. The shadow of Batman and the crime he fights cover everything, including Bruce’s relationship with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Stranger Than Fiction”). We want them to be together, but like everything in Gotham, there is little hope for what is wanted. And While “The Dark Knight” isn’t totally hopeless, the filmmakers never let their characters or the audience off the hook. The darkest hour comes at the end of the film, and there is no promise that the dawn is anywhere near breaking.

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