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Movie Review: 'The Dark Knight'

MoviesThe Dark Knight (movie)IMAXPhilosophyHeath LedgerMorgan Freeman

The risk with a movie as good as "The Dark Knight" is overhyping it to the degree that people come out saying, "I was expecting cinema and all I got was a comic book movie."

So I'll say that I'm prepared to call "The Dark Knight" the finest comic book movie ever made and I would expect with some confidence to find it in my overall Top Five at the end of the year.

Quite simply: While "The Dark Knight" isn't without flaws, it is what you hope it will be.

[There certainly will be spoilers here. That's unavoidable. They won't detailed spoilers and I sure as heck won't give away any of the most major plotpoints. But the fresher you want to be when you see the movie, the more you want to hold off on reading this review until after you've seen the movie. That, I guess, makes it less of a "review" and more of, as I've said before, an evaluative essay on the movie. So be it.]

The problem with Nolan's " Batman Begins," a movie that I quite enjoyed at the time, was that it seemed to go on forever. There was a lengthy origin story, followed by a loose series of short films in which Batman battled the Gotham mob, then Scarecrow, then Ra's Al Ghul. Within each of those movies, I found much to praise, but with no thematic or narrative throughline joining them, "Batman Begins" couldn't sustain itself for 140 minutes, at least not for repeat viewings.

So Nolan and co-writing brother Jonathan solved the problem.

"The Dark Knight" runs even longer than "Batman Begins," but its duration is justified by the fact that from the first to last scene, there's an arc unfolding, an arc that follows in the storied tradition of middle installments of cinematic trilogies. In Chapter One, we meet our hero and are awed by his superhuman status. In Chapter Two, we discover the limits of our hero and face his relative humanity.

Nolan make movies with a common undercurrent. Whether we're looking at "Memento" or "Insomnia" or "The Dark Knight" or "The Prestige," his heroes are men whose obsessions straddle the barrier between noble/productive and disturbing and self-consuming.

In "The Dark Knight," there are two sides to the coin. Newly introduced Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is driven by a legal and ethical imperative. He's determined to clean Gotham up by any legitimate means necessary. He's absolutely selfless in his quest, but he's limited by his status as a public figure and by rules and regulations that don't apply to Gotham's criminals. Batman ( Christian Bale) is driven by a moral imperative. He's a vigilante and thus cares only about good versus evil. And thanks to his wealth and his assortment of awesome toys, he has no limitations. Except for his moral code, which places restricts the amount of wrong he's prepared to do right.

The "Dark Knight" script follows what happens to these two very good men when they face a man who has no limitations whatsoever. Heath Ledger's Joker is pure and malevolent id. He doesn't care about money or power, only chaos. He has none of the motivations or pathologies that Dent or Batman understand and none of the fears or weaknesses that they're accustomed to battling. If "Batman Begins" burdened Bruce Wayne/Batman with excessive origin and backstory, Joker has been gifted by the opposite. The Joker's purple suits and face-paint are what they are -- his sartorial choices go unexplained, as do his clown fetish and reluctance to wash his hair -- and the explanation for the gruesome scars that make his hideous smile are used as protean punchlines. We don't see his lair. We don't get to know his henchmen. He doesn't waste time brooding. He doesn't become romantically devoted to Vicky Vale. As much baggage as The Joker is doubtlessly packing on a psychological level, he doesn't burden the movie with it.

And that's the core of the movie. And it's a solid one. How do you do good if you live in a world where it's easier to do evil and where even the best of intentions and ideals inspire more wickedness than virtue?

To turn things over, as I love to do, to Yeats, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity."

I have to confess that I only fully appreciated the marvelous complexity that Nolan achieves in addressing this conundrum after watching the infantile lack of pragmatism in "Wanted." Because no, Nolan doesn't perfectly face the dueling journeys for Dent and Bruce Wayne and there certainly are times that you wish for more of the Joker and less internal struggle for the heroes. But much of that is caused by the excellence of Ledger's final completed screen role.

Those who are less enamored of "The Dark Knight" -- people who, in advance, make me sad -- will ask a very cynical question: Would Ledger's performance here be getting this same attention if he hadn't died this January? I wondered the same thing, albeit not in print, about Adrienne Shelly when "Waitress" came out to rave reviews. My cynicism was wrong there and the Ledger doubters will also be wrong.

Keep in mind that Jack Nicholson received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as The Joker in the Tim Burton "Batman" and that he was at least somewhat in the Oscar discussion that year. It's just a showy roll. And Young Daniel was a huge fan of the Nicholson performance and even today I can reflect on it with much pleasure. The gist of the performance was that The Joker was a fun-house mirror version of Batman. As The Joker reflected, looking a the local newspaper, "Winged Freak Terrorizes [Gotham City]... Wait'll they get a load of me!"

But that quote meant one thing: That The Joker was *weirder* than Batman.

In "The Dark Knight," Ledger's Joker, looking at Batman, matter-of-factly observes, "You complete me!" The meaning is completely different. Batman's over-reasoned sense of order is just the other side of the coin to Joker's over-reasoned sense of anarchy.

And Ledger is quite awesome, giving a performance that's both mannered and actorly and completely off-the-rails in its sense of improvisation.

Want my comparison? Ledger's performance is like John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things." In the background there's a recognizable actor and an oft-played character and you can see occasional hints of previous Ledger performances and even of previous Joker interpretations. But those moments, as well-delivered as the are, are rare compared to the moments where he's just jamming by himself, doing whatever insane thing he and Nolan concocted together.

There are the hunched shoulders, the raw and flat and accent-free voice, the licking of the lips, the way he rarely seems to be looking straight-on at anybody (and when he does, it becomes even scarier). Those are all things that were carefully delivered and prepared. But Ledger's every line reading feels like it's coming from another planet. That mixture of calculation and free-wheeling is what Ledger's Joker is all about. Ledger is scary, frequently funny and impossible to take your eyes off of. The movie's energy flags when he's absent, but that's unavoidable.

And that doesn't mean that the film's other performances are lacking. Bale is still at his best when contrasting Bruce Wayne's actual agita with his playboy front, though there's much less of the latter persona in this movie. I'm still waiting, though, on a scripted explanation for the gravel-voiced rumble he affects as Batman.

Eckhart has less time to develop Harvey Dent's arc and even if he did, it would have been upstaged by Ledger at every turn. He's fine. And his make-up/effects in the last act are icky-awesome.

The other major new addition to the cast is Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. The character doesn't have a whole heap to do in the movie, but for what's required of her, Gyllenhaal is better suited than Holmes would have been.

The star-studded supporting cast is again superb. I want to, once again, single out Gary Oldman as Not-Yet-Commissioner Gordon. It's predictable for Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine to successfully embody decency and rectitude, but I remain genuinely amazed by how Nolan has steered the always grandiose Oldman into a performance this understated. He's gone two movies in this franchise without an iota of ham.

Two weeks ago, before this Press Tour onslaught began, I went back and rewatched "Insomnia," the only one of Nolan's post-"Following" movies I can't get completely behind. I just wanted to see if I'm missing something. I wasn't. It's still a movie of moments that doesn't add up, but on a second viewing I'm ready to put the blame for "Insomnia" completely Al Pacino, or rather Nolan's inability to direct Pacino into anything other than a Pacino performance.

Anyway... "Insomnia" aside, Nolan need prove nothing else to me and as good as "Memento" and "The Prestige" were, "The Dark Knight" is his pinnacle. If you look at the actors and at their performances and at the writing that guides them, you could argue that "The Dark Knight" is an intimate character drama.

But it's really a $200 million -- give or take -- summer blockbuster and there's absolutely no precedent for a director working on this scale to concentrate so equally and successfully on both the nuances of performance and absolute spectacle. That's a pretty big statement, I know.

Ledger *will* get his awards recognition -- be it inevitable nominations or even actual wins -- come the end-of-the-year and Nolan will deserve the same kind of honor, but the below-the-line talent will hopefully be remembered as well. Wally Pfister got Oscar nods for "Batman Begins" and "The Prestige" and he should expect another here. His use of Chicago in creating Gotham City is excellent, as the city is both recognizable for what it really is, but also pleasantly alien. Pfister shoots Chicago the way Chicago's mayor and City Council wish the city actually were. And in "Dark Knight," he does the same for Hong Kong in the movie's best Ledger-free sequence.

I can't emphasize this enough, kids: SEE "THE DARK KNIGHT" IN IMAX. SERIOUSLY!!!

Nolan and Pfister shot establishing shots and core action sequences in 65mm for the purpose of IMAX presentation and the IMAX-ready material is breathtaking from the movie's very first frame. Literally breathtaking. And there more than a half-dozen additional shots in the movie that produced a similar reaction, where my mouth was absolutely agape at the amount of information and clarity being delivered. There are occasional moments where the IMAX screen produced a sensory overload, but it's not overload in a Michael Bay way, which is a tribute to how Nolan shot the action scenes and how Lee Smith (the former Cubs closer?!?!?) edited them. The action scenes are taut and muscular and rely on expert stunt work and second unit photography rather than computer effects and post-"Matrix" whizbang. These are John Frankheimer/Don Siegel/John Sturges action scenes, paced out by a score featuring as much heroic bombast as Hans Zimmer can muster.

There. That's more than 2000 words to say that "The Dark Knight" is a superb movie, the year's best to date.

I probably should have just said that and saved us all some time!

Read more of Dan Fienberg's reviews on his blog, Check the Fien Print.

See the trailer and find local showtimes for "The Dark Knight."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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MoviesThe Dark Knight (movie)IMAXPhilosophyHeath LedgerMorgan Freeman
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