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Movie Review: THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

Written by Christopher Beaubien • July 22, 2008 • Start the Discussion!

Gotham’s Finest! Consequently, also its bleakest.

I wept throughout the last two minutes of The Dark Knight and applauded rapturously throughout the end credits. This is the Batman movie I have been waited for ever since I discovered the Batman comics at the age of five. It is unrelentingly grim; however, it is also very optimistic because the power of good, slight as it is, glows against the darkness. When hopelessness engulfs its victims, true heroism at its most intangible and mysterious can shine in the corridors of the heart. Here, sacrifice is the key to combat such harrowing evil. I love exhilarating tragedies. This film has a prominent place on my list of the best films of the decade alongside the Dardenne Brother’s Le Fils (2003), Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely and Amazing (2002), Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Mike Nicols’ Wit (2001). I love this movie so much that, despite the obvious legalities attached to this proposition, I want to ask Christopher Nolan’s permission to marry his movie.

In terms of on-screen performances, I’d like to do something rather radical, and focus on the work of Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent first. My first confrontation with Eckart was as Chad, the all-too-credible venomous charmer in Neil Labute’s In The Company of Men (1997). In that film, Chad persuades his pal Howard (Matt Malloy), an earnest lemming, while on their business venture out of town to play a cruel joke on a pretty, deaf woman (Stacy Edwards). It was a small masterpiece about how a sterile, corporate environment breeds nihilistic alpha males, nebbishes and their victims. Eckhart’s work was phenomenal in depicting misanthropy with such unnerving — in the worst sense of the word — humanity. This was a character actor to watch out for.

Throughout the last ten years, I’ve seen him shine in the corners of Your Friends and Neighbors (1998), Nurse Betty (2000), The Pledge (2001), and Conversations with Other Women (2005). Finally, Jason Reitman cast Eckhart as an earnest tobacco lobbyist in Thank You For Smoking (2005), which launched him into the mainstream as a leading man who could dive in the taboo stream (“It is in our best interest to keep Robin (Cancer Boy) alive and smoking!”) and retain his likability – he could smile his way through manslaughter if he wanted.

As Gotham City’s new White Knight, District Attorney Harvey Dent, Eckhart has finally delivered an astonishing performance in a mainstream blockbuster. Eckhart is so good that he deserves nomination talk along with Heath Ledger, who I will write about later. Throughout the first half of the picture, Eckhart is perfect as the passionate, though moody D.A. with his brooding forehead and easy smile. So eager to hang up the cape, Batman (Christian Bale) looks to Dent as a fearless crusader, his equal minus the mask, who could take down the mob and return Gotham to form. They both give one another strength like yin and yang: “You can’t quit!” Dent is a man who would rather face on powerful criminals in court (“I haven’t finished question him, your honor!”) than hobnob alone with stuck-up socialites at his re-election fund raiser. He simply prefers to make his own fate.

Now that Dent has become a symbol of heroism, it becomes increasingly difficult as a human being to remain pure and without flaws. Harvey Dent encapsulates a truth that courteous people are capable of monstrous deeds, much like the Brendon Gleeson character in In Bruges (2008). Batman supports Dent as they work with Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who has finally embraced Batman since their last encounter in Batman Begins (2005). There is a wonderful shot up on the roof of police headquarters that circulates around the three defenders next to the beaming bat-signal post all in one take. Dent and Gordon argue loudly about apprehending a money embezzler linked to the mob, while Batman stands opposite, observing them. Batman has become so integrated in this world that the suits don’t even blink at a man dressed as a bat.

The only problem Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne has with Dent is his infatuation with his legal partner Rachael Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal – she owns this role) before his life was tarnished by the murder of his parents. Having realized himself as Batman to combat the corruption in his city, the criminal element has escalated to extremes both theatrical and insane. Enter the Joker (Heath Ledger), a disfigured and greasily made up sociopath who takes great pride as a showman inflicting anarchy and death. “This city deserves a better class of criminal.”

Batman must exhaust all of his resources to take down the clown prince of crime. His allies are indispensable making the symbolic feat of Batman more effective. Morgan Freeman gives Lucius Fox, a Gotham version of James Bond’s M, a cool delivery and a powerful stand against an abuse of moral power in dire times. This time Batman actually flies. Michael Caine is graceful as Alfred who gives voice to Batman’s conscience. Usually on hand for welcome comic relief, Alfred’s own back story presents a cynical alternative to take down a powerful enemy: We burned the forest down.”

The music by Hans Zimmer (a David Cronenberg favorite) and James Newton Howard (Signs, 2002) excels at balancing urgency, dread and despair. At key points, particularly the opening sequence, they heighten the frequency on an electric guitar to create a tense stringing sound like a violin being brutally tuned. The emphasized string theme for Harvey Two-Face (yes, I own the soundtrack) is unforced, sad, and even — dare I say it — noble. There are many musical cues that were lifted from their own score for Batman Begins. Close listeners will recall the music that plays over Joker’s getaway as he leans out the window of a moving automobile, relishing the cold wind blowing in his face, is the same as when Alfred proposes “a little supper” to a devastated child. The music of the series makes its own fantastic niche amongst the unique, rich and haunting scores from past Batman adaptations by Danny Elfman and the late Shirley Walker. The music for Batman the Animated Series as a CD collection remains criminally out of reach. Warner Bros. – what are you waiting for?*

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan are not afraid to stray away from the technicalities of the batman universe in order to engage their own personal imaginings of their own excitably dense and layered, though always coherent and logical, means of storytelling (re: Memento, The Prestige). Just look at what they did to Barbara. Another example is of their substitution for the Batcave: an underground concrete-walled box with a gridded light-screened ceiling that extends for hundreds of feet. Its cold and ordered spaciousness suits this Batman rather than the elaborate black-rocked cavern warped by centuries that we’ve come to expect.

This choice is coherent with where we left Batman last – Wayne Manor was burned to the ground at the end of Batman Begins – and the Nolan brothers rightfully figure that its reconstruction would be proceeding at this time. This example show how meticulous and adventurous Nolan brothers are in constructing every facet evident throughout the production. Imagine how it could look in the third Batman installment!

Based on a story by David S. Goyer (Dark City, 1998), the film is briskly paced thanks to the economical editing of Lee Smith. To Christopher Nolan’s credit, he knows when to savor a good thing (for example: Heath Ledger’s performance). Halfway into the picture, a very nerve-wracking countdown that demands an impossible choice and a high speed pursuit is so exciting that a lesser filmmaker might be content to leave it as a climatic denouncement. Christopher Nolan is so generous he’s concocted the means to raise the stakes even higher. The arduous mile taken to film twenty minutes of establishing shots and action sequences using the 70mm IMAX camera is revolutionary for feature films. The clarity of these shots makes the illusion on screen seem strangely tangible.

The look of the film by cinematographer Wally Pfister (always employed by Nolan) and production designer Nathan Crowley (The Lake House, 2006) is stellar. Gotham City, filmed again in the windy city Chicago, is gothic and beautiful with an emphasis of yellow, green, and blue hues at night. The futuristic atmosphere is toned down here compared to Batman Begins with its obvious Blade Runner influences. The camera choices by Nolan are tasteful and exciting. There are deft tracking shots that prove time and again that a moving camera is an involving one.

The make-up and visual effects that helped transform Harvey Dent into Two-Face made me grin ear to ear. I love how the suspended bloodshot eyeball twitches and how the jaw and cheek muscles slide behind the burnt flesh. The lead up to the revelation of his face is well handled with a well-timed tease that cuts away to Gordon’s double take (if you’ll pardon the expression). Two-Face is everything I wanted from the deranged, tragic character since I saw his excellent origin story written by Alan Burnett and Randy Rogel in the apt two-parter Two-Face in Batman: The Animated Series. He inspires a walking nightmare – an angel who got too close to the flame.

Promo for TWO-FACE PART I from BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES

They Don’t Make Em’ Like This Anymore.

I was struck by the love triangle because the romance genuinely looks like it’s populated with adults. As Rachel Dawes, Gyllenhaal is so striking and lovely with her crooked smile, her laugh-lines, and her empathetic eyes. It’s a real improvement over the baby-faced Katie Holmes who did her best in the first Batman film. Christian Bale is the man – the definitive Batman who interrogates thugs suspended by dizzying heights (I love what happens to a mobster’s ankle) and growls his dialogue with such deep-throated authority. Yes, that’s my Batman.

The use of viral marketing over the past year has integrated the film sublimely. For example, those who signed up for news regarding this superhero epic have had e-mails of ‘I Believe in Harvey Dent’ calls to action for re-election. When Wayne criticizes them without displaying a single one in the film, I felt more connected in this world. Having pointed out Harvey Dent’s Win for D.A. and Gordon’s Ambush via Phone. Here, I feel most compelled to point out the coolest plug for my guiltiest pleasure.

Pizza Delivery In Gotham City

Finally, the Joker. I love the Joker. I am intoxicated by the essence of this villain. Some of my personality and my artwork has been inspired by this all-knowing character with the sinister grin. Jack Nicolson’s version amused me as a toddler. One of my fondest memories is when I was nine, when my sister took me to a local comics convention and I got to meet Bruce W. Timm and Paul Dini, the creators of Batman: The Animated Series, arguably the best superhero-inspired animated show ever made. When Bruce W. Timm asked me which character I wanted him to draw for me…well, the Joker is framed on the wall to the left of my computer.

Mark Hamill’s voice work as the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series was my favourite for years. I can do a mean imitation of that version. This Joker, as penned by the great Paul Dini, was at his best when he tortured specific people as a hobby or when he threw his poor lovesick henchwench Harley Quinn out of a window and later sent her a Get Well Soon card at the hospital. The Joker’s relationship to Batman is a zealous one driven by ego. When the Joker thought Batman was dead, he held a ghoulish funeral where he mused, “For it was the Batman who made me the happy soul I am today. How I agonized for the perfect way to thank him for that. Perhaps with a cyanide pie to the face!

The Joker’s Eulogy in THE MAN WHO KILLED BATMAN

Not only has Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger tapped into the spirit of that wonderful Joker, but their reinvention of the character is truly brilliant. The happy bracket scars around this Joker’s sadistically grinning lips brings to mind an image from Ichi The Killer. This Joker was not dropped into a vat of chemicals. He was never the Red Hooded Man or Jack Napier. His origin is lost to an abyss of torture. The fact that this Joker actually applies the white make-up, dyes his stringy hair green, and applies slashes of blood-red lipstick to himself makes him even creepier. His warped identity is driven by choice.

Tragically, we have lost the late Heath Ledger as well as the chance to see him in dozens more unrealized roles, has created a Joker that will be revered for decades. If the Academy chooses to honor the dead, he will be nominated this year, but it is deserving of the lead and not the supporting one. This Joker speaks in a Chicago accent, licking his lips, chewing his words like they were steak. The intent of his diction differs from the trailer so most of the real takes weren’t spoiled. I’ll never forget the way he roars “LOOK! AT! ME!” at an abducted Batman copycat. What’s more is that the Joker is a brilliant terrorist. The Joker’s mind isn’t just screwy, it’s labyrinthine. I love the shot where the camera rotates on the Joker suspended upside-down, just as he finishes explaining his true victory to Batman, he is right-side up but the city behind him is topsy-turvy. The best and most surreal image of the whole film depicts The Joker bombing a hospital in broad daylight and then boarding a school bus.

Let’s face it, only the real thing can speak for itself.

How exhilarating it is to see a vision so personal and tragic in a multi-million dollar studio picture. Especially in times where studio execs aim for what they dubiously calculate to be the public majority; the lowest common denominator. The Dark Knight delivers such soaringly smart drama and action using a comprehensible film aesthetic. Audiences are sending a strong message to the studios by their attendance and returns. For the time being, The Dark Knight is currently one of the largest grossing films of all time. The IMDB website records it within the top three films having tallied a public poll, beating Francis Ford Coppola’s long-standing champion The Godfather (1972). Whether a cash-devouring blockbuster can be measured by its economical value for its artistic value is another essay for another day. The demand for quality in future motion pictures is deafening.**

The comic-book movie genre has crossed swiftly to the elevated acres of great pulp drama. Kudos Warner Bros. It’s a pity that Bob Kane couldn’t have lived another ten years to see this film. Take a bow, Christopher Nolan, and wow us with a great finale in your Batman trilogy. I think Josh Lucas would make the perfect Riddler, a slithery mastermind with a sinister grin. And who’s to say it’s not too late to throw Harley Quinn into the mix. I’d love to see Amy Adams (Junebug, 2005) in clown make-up turn sociopath.

Funny, I always knew that the one to get Batman right would be named Christopher.

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) Trailer

*February 23, 2009:

Looks like the team behind the soundtrack for Batman: The Animated Series was waiting until December 2008. The first volume of Shirley Walker’s score was finally released on limited edition CDs. I write more in depth about it in my piece entitled Shirley Walker’s Contribution To “Apolcalypse Now” (1979).

**July 30, 2009:

While re-reading this review, I was struck by how the euphoria of The Dark Knight (2008) made me so… optimistic. The truth is that the commercial revenue a film earns is no way to evaluate its artistic quality. Just look at how moviegoers are rewarding Michael Bay’s witless eye-crunch Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Last year’s The Dark Knight had more respect for its audience, which seems to have been wasted this year considering where audiences could be going to see instead. There’s Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès, Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop, and Duncan Jones’ Moon — my overall favourite this year. The Summer of 2009 isn’t suffering for a lack of great movies. Unfortunately, those attending the movies based on action figurines are getting their full on a spoiled crop.

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