Sunday, July 20, 2008
No Laughing Matter: The Dark Knight
Hair tangled and greasy, face white, eyes black, cheeks stained red in a wicked grin, Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s latest Batman flick looks like a Guy Fawkes/Black Dahlia hybrid. Or like Marcel Marceau passed out in a gutter after a long night of drinking. There’s nothing clownish about him, not even with the purple suit. Cesar Romero on TV and Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman played the Joker as a jester first, scoundrel second; having a good time always took priority over sinister specifics. But in The Dark Knight, written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, the Joker as embodied by Ledger is something darker and more demented. Here the Joker is a genuine monster, a symbol of evil as much as an agent of it.
If there’s been a more psychopathic character in a comic book adaptation, I can’t think of it. Most assuredly, I’ve never seen a more arresting performance within the genre – by a villain or otherwise – than the one Ledger provides here, and it would be an insult to the actor to only regard this portrayal so narrowly. If the merely semi-serious nature of comic book flicks makes them hard to criticize, the flipside is that we sometimes don’t take them seriously enough. Ledger’s fervent turn – as uncontainable as Ennis Del Mar was inward – rivals some of the best baddies in cinema history, from the theatrical Hannibal Lecter to any of the gritty Martin Scorsese thugs. (And, yeah, that means I’m comparing Ledger to Robert De Niro. Bring on the lightning bolts.) That there might be any level of debate about the effectiveness of Ledger’s Joker stems from the fact that The Dark Knight frequently undercuts him. That’s the film’s tragic mistake.
(Spoilers ahead in rest of review.) Within the comic book genre, and maybe outside of it, no hero and villain are as inextricably linked as Batman and the Joker. Even non-fan-boys and -girls can name that rivalry, the same as they could Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. The Penguin, the Riddler, Catwoman, oh, we know those foes of the Caped Crusader, too. But the Joker is the ultimate nemesis in Gotham City, and that’s precisely why he deserves his own spotlight. Alas, he doesn’t get it. Before The Dark Knight concludes, Two-Face joins the fray providing a subplot that feels both thin and rushed, despite a whopping 152-minute running time. The cost is twofold: 1) time spent away from the Joker is considerably less interesting, causing some of the movie’s momentum to leak; 2) the implication (though certainly unintended) is that the Joker isn’t villain enough to terrorize Gotham on his own, thus snuffing out part of the inferno Ledger works so hard to ignite.
Does it ruin the film? No. Thanks to Ledger’s twisted creation there’s a level of menace to The Dark Knight rarely seen within the genre, and he successfully resuscitates the plot after every ill-advised diversion. But it’s an opportunity missed, both in the short term (The Dark Knight would have been a more gripping picture, not to mention a more straightforward one, at a comparatively lean two hours) and in the long term (If the Joker can’t fight Batman alone, what villain can? Are we a sequel away from going back to the vapid Joel Schumacher days when the bad guys were so numerous that there needed to be a roll call before fight scenes?). By giving us more villains we ended up with a lower percentage of mesmerizing villainy. Only the Joker delivers.
Even then though, The Dark Knight dissolves as it goes rather than finding its focus. One of its most expressive scenes, and certainly its tautest, is the picture-opening bank heist – part Heat, part Point Break – that announces the Joker’s presence with authority. (If that scene doesn’t do it for ya, another one shortly following it, featuring the Joker and a pencil, will do the trick.) The longer the movie goes, the more words it relies on to underline its ethical wrestling match (almost every character gets at least one chance atop the soapbox to ponder right and wrong and Batman’s place between the two). Meanwhile, the Joker’s terrorist campaigns become bigger but not weightier. Somewhere along the way, the Nolans seem to confuse complicatedness with consequence. The only reason the Joker’s final terrorist act is at all climactic is because the movie ends soon after it. Once Two-Face is born, there’s no time to adequately build suspense.
Still, The Dark Knight works even though it might have worked so much better. Christian Bale once again instills a ferociousness in Batman – sometimes too well – that makes him refreshingly different from so many other superheroes. Maggie Gyllenhaal brings some depth to the Rachel Dawes role previously played by Katie Holmes. Gary Oldman continues to be surprisingly flat (in a good way) as the plain James Gordon. Aaron Eckhart looks and talks the part as the cocky golden boy Harvey Dent. And Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman provide the grandfatherly gravitas as Alfred and Q, er, Lucius Fox, respectively.
Visually, The Dark Knight is hit-and-miss. Though it’s often obvious where special effects were required, the application of CGI is mostly seamless (an escape from a Hong Kong skyscraper would be an unfortunate exception, and I’d have preferred old-fashioned makeup for Two-Face’s gruesome half). Most important, when Batman flies through the cityscape, he appears to have weight, something the hero in the Spider-Man movies often lacked. But on the downside, several of the action sequences are confusingly staged, with the key blows happening off-screen, probably to preserve the movie’s PG-13 rating. On top of that, the sets of production designer Nathan Crowley are remarkably repetitive, with lots of large, modestly furnished spaces. But my biggest disappointment is that Gotham City has never looked so small. The Dark Knight was filmed in Chicago and it looks like it was filmed in Chicago. These exteriors contrast not just with my understanding of what Gotham City should be (at least as big as Manhattan) but also with the world created in Batman Begins. Too bad.
Yet these are quibbles, and given the dreck that we’ve suffered through of late (namely Indiana Jones and The Happening) it’s a poor time to quibble. Within its genre, The Dark Knight is a great film despite its faults. I’d appreciate it even more if only I could get past the nagging voice in my head telling me that the Nolans blew their chance at something more significant, something classic. A few hours after seeing The Dark Knight, I exchanged text messages with my brother, who contemplated what a sequel might entail. Catwoman, I predicted, noting that with Rachel out of the picture Bruce Wayne and Batman are ripe for some conflicts of the heart. “Good call,” my brother texted back. “But whatever it is, nothing can beat the Joker!” Exactly, I thought. If the Nolans had realized as much, their film might have lived up to Ledger’s awesome performance.
[Consider this a spoiler warning for the entire comments section.]