Batman: The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan’s sequel to 2005’s revisionist look at the Caped Crusader, Batman Begins, is ostensibly a comic-book movie. Yet it shares about as much with its generic contemporaries as a Mercedes does with a Yugo — they’re worlds apart. Yes, comic-book movies have been big before, but this is the first one that truly counts as ambitious. It’s part adrenaline rush, part mindgame, part character study, part political allegory, part urban-crime epic — sometimes all at the same time. Knight isn’t content to follow the conventions of the last ten years of spandex-clad cinematic saviors.
Nolan imbues the film with seriousness and moral gravity, and has embedded it into his most staggering visual. Several times in the film, Batman swoops down from atop a skyscraper, spreading his cape into a wing in order to coast downward through the city’s skyscraper corridors. When he dives, the movie soars. It’s an undeniable rush, and an image of staggering potency: a masked man in freefall, hurtling recklessly toward Gotham’s grimy streets. No matter how hard Bats attempts to stay above it all, he eventually has to take a fall.
That doesn’t stop him from attempting to stay aloft. When the story starts, Bruce Wayne, Batman’s billionaire playboy alter-ego, has moved into a downtown penthouse loft. He’s spending as much time fending off gun-toting vigilante Batman impersonators as fighting real crime — the moral high ground makes a difference. But when the Joker shows up chasing anarchic destruction for its own sake, the choices get tougher fast.
From there on out, Nolan, working from a script he wrote with his brother, keeps things emotionally charged and action-heavy. Unlike several of his previous films — Memento, The Prestige, even the first Batman — this one’s got a straightforward story. It doesn’t always work perfectly (don’t think too hard about how the Joker enters or exits a penthouse party), but he smooths over the plot deficiencies with a series of rollicking set-pieces, including a breathless, brutal chase through the bowels of the city.
Nolan may have straightened out his storyline, but he’s still plenty twisted. Most summer-movie directors want to put audiences at ease. Nolan, on the other hand, is not afraid to cause some indigestion, or worse. Throughout the film, he sets up scenarios which would normally be resolved through some kind of out — a safe resolution to a dangerous situation. There are rules to the superhero genre, safe and comfortable: no one ever really gets hurt. This makes for a reliable sense of warmth and fun, but it also makes for sterile, predictable experiences. Nothing’s ever really at stake when the game’s been rigged.
Fortunately, no one told Nolan. He’s reportedly a pleasant British chap, but he’s got a killer instinct lurking inside, and he loves ripping away the familiar narrative safety nets. In scene after scene, he goes for the jugular (or the eye, or the face, or the leg — this movie’s not for the squeamish, or little kids). I kept waiting for him to pull a punch, even a little, to take the easy way out. He doesn’t. Mostly I just dropped my jaw and thought: Dude, he totally went there.
Of course, he couldn’t have gone much of anywhere without a top notch crew of actors. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal — it would almost be easier to list the actors who don’t appear. Bale reprises his role as both the man in the mask and his alter ego, Bruce Wayne. Bale projects just the right combination of repression, obsession, ability, and entitlement — he’s probably crazy, possibly deranged, but somehow you believe he can handle it. Gyllenhaal takes over for Katie Holmes as Gotham’s assistant DA — and Bruce’s sometime flame — Rachel Dawes. As written, Oldman, Caine, and Freeman are little more than talking plot devices — mentor types who help Batman get from story point A to plot point B — but these old pros elevate the material at every turn.
And then there’s Heath Ledger, in his final complete big-screen performance. To his credit, it’s a marvel. His Joker comes fully cracked and utterly definitive; he’s a buffonish, disfigured apparition, his face slashed and caked in white paint — “the clown,” the cops call him, though he’s not funny in the least. He doesn’t have time for pranks, just chaos, death, and despair. What does he want? Who knows? Probably not even him. When facing down a gun-turreted motorcycle he just urges it on, daring death to take him down. “Oh, that way madness lies, let me shun that,” said King Lear. Ledger’s ghoulish monstrosity flips the notion; he sees the way toward madness and embraces it.
It’s a harsh portrayal, stripped down to its monstrous core. It’s difficult to watch at times, but also approaching brilliant. And indeed, the rest of the film follows suit. The Warner Brothers studio logo that opens the film has been stripped of color — re-rendered in steely gray and black; the rest of the movie’s been equally drained of all but shadow, though it’s got a violent, vicious life to it. When it’s over, as with many summer action pictures, you’ll find yourself trying to catch your breath, but you’re also likely to be tense, shaken — anything but reassured. A Dark Knight this is, but dark hardly does it justice; this Batman’s pitch black, and better for it.
– Peter Suderman blogs at The American Scene.