THE DARK KNIGHT
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan
and Jonathan Nolan
Starring Christian Bale,
Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart
and Maggie Gyllenhaal
There's a reason the Joker has always been Batman's best enemy. Batman, the morose hero with his dual identity but monochrome morality, needs someone with some fiendish humour to make him interesting. The new Batman movie, buoyed by the late Heath Ledger's gleefully weird shape-shifting performance, is a complicated, unsettling affair. Mixing bravura filmmaking with flat clichés in about equal amounts, The Dark Knight is all about dualism. Appropriately, the movie's half-inspired, half-frustrating.
One part of it is a big, dark and shiny summer action flick, with a throbbing, nightmarish soundtrack (two composers, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer, worked on it) and peppered with jolts of explosive action. Like a nightmare that won't stop, The Dark Knight amplifies the sadistic logic of action movies with echoing scenes of bombs inside bodies, people tethered to explosives, torture scenes, execution videos and characters placed in kill-or-die dilemmas. The other part of the movie is a philosophical chin-stroker about the ethics of violence.
"Don't start with the head," whines the Joker when Batman ("spoiler alert" be damned), starts thumping on his skull. Having run out of better ideas, Batman has his arch-rival locked in a police holding pen, where he decides to beat information out of him.
Like pretty much everything else in The Dark Knight, the Joker's meaning is double. The Joker doesn't want to be whacked on his ugly, painted noggin (can you have a bad-hair life?), but he's also trying to educate Batman to be more instinctive and spontaneous.
It's not just that the Joker may be gay for Batman ("you complete me"), he wants to make him more interesting, to transcend good and evil, to recognize that a few individuals - say, him and Batman - are capable of going beyond what's expected and transforming reality. Batman might have squelched the argument by pointing out the Joker was shamelessly plagiarizing Nietzsche; instead, the Caped Crusader just keeps punching.
The Joker's not the only philosopher getting headaches in the film: Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is the cleft-jawed young district attorney who is out-shining even Batman in his crusade against crime. Like a modern scientist, he's the believer that life is ruled by probabilities - so he flips a coin to make his major decisions. As for Batman, he's portrayed as a man with a weakness for the accoutrements of fascism (control, secrecy, technology and cool costumes), which is kept in check by his instinctive, if badly articulated sense of conscience. Compared with the Joker, Batman always sounds as though he came a little late to class: "I was meant to inspire goodness," he laments, "not madness, not death."
The movie is peopled with opposites, doppelgangers and even doppelgang-bangers in the opening scene, (derived from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing) in which a group of men in evil clown make-up rob a bank filled with mob money and then start shooting each other.
Some of the action is spectacular - a tractor trailer flipping like a gymnast down the street, Batman swan diving from the top of a skyscraper into the dizzy depths below - but many of the fighting and chase scenes are a struggle to follow. In an early scene in which Batman finds himself contending, not only with criminals but copycat Batman vigilantes as well, it's impossible to tell what's going on. As an action director, Nolan is bubbling with ideas but deprives the audience of the satisfaction of coherence.
The triumph of the movie is the performance of Heath Ledger, who might posthumously get the Oscar here he deserved for Brokeback Mountain. He first appears, seen from behind, with an outcast's slump to his shoulders and head bowed like a vulture. The Joker here is depicted as an artist manqué. He doesn't create chaos and death for money, or push people into "social experiments" for profit, he does it to make life more interesting. Ledger's fascinating performance is both multilayered and unstable - his tongue flickering to the sides of his mouth, his voice changing as he assumes different characters - many of them from other people's movies. He incorporates Jack Nicholson's performance in the same role from Tim Burton 1989 film, adds a touch of Marlon Brando, some James Cagney and, at his best moment, the world's scariest nurse. The instability is part of his charm. At various points, he offers different versions of how he acquired his traumatic facial scars, as if to suggest the whole notion of a coherent psychological history is a tedious fiction.
Despite his own creative explanations, the movie frames the Joker in familiar stereotypes. He is repeatedly identified as a psychopath and a terrorist, albeit one without any ideological agenda. Some men, explains the butler, Alfred (Michael Caine) to Bruce Wayne, can't be "bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with" because, "some men just want to watch the world burn."
Batman is much simpler. (As you may remember from Batman Begins, he wears a bat suit because - yawn - he was terrified of bats as a child.) If the Joker suggests Osama bin Laden, Batman could be a morally conflicted George W. Bush. He is forced to resort to violent interrogation, even mass surveillance (one-time-only, of course) when he enlists Morgan Freeman's Lucius to turn every cellphone in Gotham City turns into a sonar imaging system. The film sits uneasily on the pointed horns of the dilemma: The means shouldn't justify the end, but sometimes it's a no-brainer.
Though none of the other actors comes close to matching Ledger's hideous lustre, everything in The Dark Knight is a bit more over the top than in Batman Begins. The Batman character seems to have been freshly dipped in darkness, with a new, more flexible outfit, and his raspy Batman voice sounds like a cross between Clint Eastwood and Darth Vader. His alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is even more of a smug jerk, a smooth-as-shellac billionaire who travels with a chain of fashion models on his arm.
As an actor, Bale's a bit of a stick, but at least he's constantly intense. Ditto for Eckhart as Harvey Dent, Wayne's out-of-the-closet crime fighter, his rival for the assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who takes over the role of Rachel from the too perky Katie Holmes, brings welcome emotional gravity to the part, but she's far too mumsy to be convincing as the romantic ideal of both of Gotham City's most eligible hunks.
The older actors - Michael Caine as Wayne's butler, Freeman as his business colleague - are confident enough to signal to viewers that this is play-acting and occasionally twinkle at the camera to lift the movie out of its dank cocoon. The reliable Gary Oldman, who becomes Commissioner Gordon toward the end of this movie, is inadvertently more mysterious than the character should be; in a movie filled with costumed characters, you keep expecting him to rip off the Ned Flanders wig, mustache and glasses, and reveal his true identity.
Christopher Nolan and his co-writing brother Jonathan are known for their narrative complexity ( Memento), but The Dark Knight sprawls in too many directions. There's a long side trip to Hong Kong that seems to have little purpose other than to offer some more hurtling, diving camera shots and sadistic scares. Other elements are given short shrift: Harvey Dent's transformation into Harvey "Two-Face" is barely explicated. Characters appear, then drop out of the film.
After almost two hours, the movie reaches a plausible climax and then launches into another half hour, a series of traps that reveal other traps in a tiresome regression. The point of The Dark Knight may be that crazy doesn't play by the rules, but the theme is better served when obsessive behaviour is shown by the characters, not the filmmakers.
The Dark Knight opens at midnight tonight nationally in selected theatres.