Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight

"Ya Wanna See an Actor Disappear?"

No, that title is not what you think it is (and shame for going there), but Heath Ledger does such a sick, twisted, inspired version of The Joker, he blows away all pre-conceived notions of the character and his own acting history. Ledger literally gets lost in The Joker, with the smeary, sloppy make-up, his voice that goes from wormy-Richard Dreyfuss to bellowing Ahab-roar (with occasional stops at Bugs Bunny chirpiness), and a gait that sometimes shambles, sometimes totters, sometimes Frankenstein-stomps. All that theatricality is entertaining, but it's the moments of lucidity that are scary. "You're insane!" says Gotham mob-boss Sal Marone (Eric Roberts, doing relaxed, sleazy work), not without reason. "No, I'm not," replies the self-proclaimed Agent of Chaos resignedly. "No...I'm!"

Ledger's not the only show in town in "
The Dark Knight". Aaron Eckhart makes a complicated "White Knight" of DA Harvey Dent (it's really his story), Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne and booming Batman are deeper than the portrayal of "Batman Begins"--more soulful, less Bush-brash--and Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman do able support for roles slightly more down-played than the last film's. This time, Gary Oldman's Lt. Gordon has more to do, and the longer he's on-screen, the better you like him, and Maggie Gyllenhall gives the character of Rachel Dawes more of a spine (with a contrarily slinky walk) than Katie Holmes was able to provide.

The buttoned-up script is full of triangulation. There's the good-guys--Gordon, Dent and Batman--against an Axis of Evil-- The Mob, Joker and Chinese financiers (and when one disappears from the screen they're replaced by another). And that's about as black-and-white as things get. Everything else is in convoluted, mordant shades of gray. There's the romantic triangle of Dawes and Dent, with Bruce Wayne as third-wheel. The Batman "team" of Wayne,
Alfred and Lucius Fox (all ensconced in the Wayne Enterprises high-rise while Stately Wayne Manor is being rebuilt). The plot devices are triangulated traps that have an either/or scenario with a third more-horrific option--which becomes The Joker's trademark, ensuring that something bad will happen no matter what. Targets are coordinated in sets, separating the weak from the herd and laying a further trap. It's Joker's way of providing Gotham "a better class of criminal." Batman's vigilantism has made the common petty thief think twice about stepping out of line. Now the Joker sets up elaborate conspiracies that bait and switch and then turn on a dime to a more complicated and deadly resolution. "You've changed things." he crows at Batman. "There's no going back." When Wayne begins to question whether he needs to take deadlier action because Joker has "crossed the line," Alfred reminds him "You crossed that line first, Master Bruce." Hours before, Wayne had considered giving up the fight with a legitimate civic-minded public figure arriving for Gotham in Dent. Now, he's fighting harder than ever, if only to not step further across that moral line dealing with the new criminal madness. And The Joker? He starts to take actions protecting The Dark Knight, realizing that they can't kill each other: "You... complete me" he cackles, in one of the chilling laugh-lines he spouts in an interrogation scene.

"The Dark Knight" ticks along (although it's overlong by half an hour--
Director Nolan has a hard time knowing where to stop the escalating madness), with increasingly bizarre acts of cruelty (the film gets a PG-13 only because Nolan cuts away from some of the more grisly aspects--but takes the character design of one iconic Bat-villain in a more charred and eaten-away manner than even the comics devised). By the end, some of the cast has been culled, and a long entrapment scene has gone on far too long, with still another set-piece just around the corner. At some point, every one of the good guys takes a hit, usually for noble purposes, but each keeps plugging away, trying to prevent having to put tooth-paste back in the tube, as consequence upon consequence piles up. And in the end, The Batman must re-adjust his modus operandi, taking on a new guise in his battle, one that he can only accomplish alone. At the same time, he handicaps himself to ensure he can't cross the line with too much power. He's left running in front of a metaphorical fast-moving train, knowing that at any moment he's going to have to turn and stop it.

"Dark Knight?" This thing is black as pitch.

In fact its relentlessly gloomy, and the sick thing is one looks forward to Ledger showing up for some light sickness to contrast the darkness. In fact, what has distinguished the "Batman 2.0" series of films is how they take the super-hero tropes and make them...practical and familiar. Nolan has kept this film-world translation of Gotham City looking gritty and realistic--far more so than the high-spired, mono-railed futuristic Gotham of "Batman Begins"--and the feel of the film is of an intricate crime drama, rather than a super-hero epic. The opening bank robbery is a nicely taut set-piece with more than one twist. And Nolan is far more adept at staging his action than previously. But by de-clowning The Joker, one wonders how some of The Dark Knight's three-color villains will translate to this milieu. One wonders where one goes from here. And one anticipates the next installment when this one has ended.

And that's a genuine accomplishment.

"The Dark Knight" is a full-price ticket. Don't take the kids.

1 comment:

John said...

Great question about how the traditional villains translate into this gritty world Nolan has created! Ledger was outstanding and the Joker's character was written to perfectly exist in Gotham 2.0 ... but I really found Two-Face to be disappointing. He seemed out of place and arbitrarily two-dimensional in comparison. It will be interesting to see who the work in next. Catwoman seems a likely choice. Harley Quinn? I can't imagine Poison Ivy or the Penguin (although Danny Devito was surprisingly canny and gritty in the old Tim Burton film.)