Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Why So Serious? This "Knight" is dark, all right...and not much else


directed by Christopher Nolan
written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan
starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal

As I write this, “The Dark Knight” is making money. Loads of it. Shitloads of it. Batman’s making Spiderman look like the weenie and Indiana Jones like the arthritic old coot we always suspected they were. And the box office isn’t his only conquest: his new movie’s got the critics eating out of his hand and is giving the fanboys multiple fangasms. Seemingly overnight, it’s become the #1 ranked film on IMDB, finally unseating long-reigning champ “The Shawshank Redemption” and confirming my suspicion that 80% of IMDB voters are males under 40.

The parade looks mighty fine from the sidelines. But I can't jump on that bandwagon.

For the record, I’d been looking forward to “The Dark Knight” as much as anyone, and more than many. I like the brothers Nolan, the bright boys behind the devilishly clever “Memento,“ the brilliant rug-puller “The Prestige” (one of my favorite movies of 2006), and the much-needed franchise reboot “Batman Begins,” which I also loved. Even Christopher’s Jonathan-less remake of “Insomnia” managed to elicit one of Al Pacino’s few truly great performances of the past decade. So when I heard Heath Ledger had been cast as the Joker, I was intrigued. And when I started hearing the terrific buzz surrounding him, and the movie generally, my expectations soared.

Having seen it, however, I have to admit to being a bit let down. Not by Ledger, whose maniacal bottled-lightning performance lives up to the hype and should easily net a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Nor by the rest of the cast—particularly Aaron Eckhart, who deserves more attention than he’s been getting for his turn as district attorney Harvey “Two Face” Dent, and Gary Oldman, a quietly effective presence as Commissioner Gordon. And “TDK” isn’t a bad movie; it’s admirably ambitious, and explores some interesting, if muddled, ideas about the nature of heroism, the unintended consequences of cornering evil, and the social cost of preserving order in the face of forces that have nothing to lose. But as a film, as a narrative, it’s rather baggy, with too many threads, too many turns that don’t feel fully thought out, and action sequences (not Nolan’s forte) that lack punch and are drawn out too long.

Where “Batman Begins” was principally about Bruce Wayne’s path to becoming Batman, “TDK” is about his ongoing grappling with that role and its vexing moral conundrums; his attempt to turn the reins over to a man with a public face (e.g., Dent pre-Two Face); his vying with Dent for the same girl (Maggie Gyllenhaal, squandered in an extremely underwritten role); his and Gordon’s attempt to sniff out internal corruption; and their efforts to track down the Joker, who spreads mayhem and panic like a kind of demented Johnny Appleseed, ostensibly to lure Batman to his doom but really just to fuck with him. While all of these threads are connected, they somehow don’t quite cohere into an organic whole. Perhaps the centerlessness is supposed to reflect the chaos unleashed by the Joker, but it produces problems in pacing: at certain points, the film sags, even when it’s striving to ratchet up the dramatic tension.

The latter may be as much a problem of tone as of plotting. For a movie that features the Joker so prominently, “TDK” is curiously humorless. Apart from a few fleeting moments of levity, mostly in the form of one-liners from Michael Caine as the dapper and unflappable Alfred, it stays within two registers: grim and grimmer. Undoubtedly this is the point, that the dark (k)night is only getting darker as the forces of “good” are increasingly confronted with some very ugly choices. Yet the result is a film that comes across as more dour and ponderous than chilling, perhaps because the script and the direction leave no doubt that this is a movie that Takes Itself Very Seriously. Too seriously; it left me feeling nostalgic for the days of Tim Burton, emotionally and psychologically a much shallower director than Nolan, who nonetheless understood that a Batman movie could be dark and still be playful at the same time.

“TDK”’s overriding flaw is that it tries to be too much at once. The darkness within Bruce Wayne in “Batman Begins” has now been projected outwards into a broader-ranging social and political commentary, only to become oddly less effective. The Nolans are strongest when they focus on the psychology of an individual as a prism for humanity, rather than his outward acts or their impact on society. This may be why the most riveting narrative arc in TDK belongs not to Batman (Bale in stoic mode), who in this movie functions more as a mirror of society’s demands and expectations than a character, or even to the Joker, who merely holds up his own distorted mirror to Batman’s, but rather to Harvey Dent, the only person who undergoes any real development throughout the film. Eckhart, who’s spent his entire career shifting nimbly between roles in which his character’s soul is either much bigger or much smaller than his plausible, dimple-chinned charm indicates, keeps us guessing just how straight an arrow Dent really is, and (POTENTIAL SPOILER) what it will take to make him the sociopath we know he becomes. When he does turn, he’s almost more frightening than the Joker, because he’s been the most sympathetic character up to that point. (END SPOILER) If the Joker is the id of Gotham and Batman its superego, then Dent is its ego. And to the extent the interplay of the three reflects the disordered state of "TDK," it succeeds. Perhaps a little too well.



Blogger Amanda said...

Yes, Aaron Eckhart is awesome. I thought next to him, Christian Bale's face looked too gaunt and defined.

10:07 AM  
Blogger EC said...

Hm, that's the first lukewarm review that I've heard. I'm not seeing it until Sunday on IMax, but I like your capsule review.

3:25 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

Yes, we are rare, we holdouts against the power of the Batman, but we do exist...

I do plan to put up a full review at some point in the near future - I've just been swamped at work lately. But I do want to weigh in at greater length, and I will.

3:41 AM  
Blogger EC said...

It was sooooo long, with too much going on. We didn't need that many plotlines.

6:26 PM  
Blogger EC said...

Oh, and I want to cross post a link to my friend Toasty Ken's review because I think he read into it much more deeply than I did (and hence falls into the best movie of the year, camp).

7:19 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

Thanks for that link, ec. Interesting interpretation, and not the first time I've seen a commentary on the movie's political subtext that links it to the Bush administration and/or the war on terrorism. But for me the resonance only works if the narrative does, too, and for me, it just doesn't completely. It has great moments, but it also frquently feels cluttered or plodding (sometimes both at the same time!). Something I think you, also, felt.

Gah, I really need to get my review up soon!

3:27 PM  
Blogger EC said...

BTW, Shawshank is back on top of the IMDB best film of all time list:


8:41 PM  
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