Martin Scorsese's The Departed. Michael Mann's Heat. Brian de Palma's The Untouchables. And now, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight can join the list of one of the most absorbing and intense crime dramas in modern movie milestones. It just happens to be set in the fictional gritty city of Gotham, and just happens to feature a superhero wearing a bat-suit and an arch-villain in clown makeup.
Nolan (Memento, The Prestige) showed more than just promise with Batman Begins, reinvigorating the series with an edgier darkness, leaner, meaner characters, and a forcefully frightening foe in Scarecrow. Now, three years later, he's really taken flight with The Dark Knight, choosing to focus on plot and character, which allows the more extreme aspects of the fictional world become incidental, yet elemental, to the story. This is definitely not one of those comic book moves that could have been directed by "anybody." (It's co-written by Nolan with his brother, Jonathan, who also collaborated on Memento and The Prestige, but not Batman Begins.)
One thing Batman (Christian Bale) never does is cower down from his fears. Even as a little boy, after he fell into an abyss that housed thousands of bats and scarred his psyche, he took the winged creature as his talisman; when his parents were murdered before his young eyes, he vowed never to allow a cruel criminal to go unpunished; when fraud blighted his family's business, he made it right; and when his beloved Gotham City fell prey to sleazy cartels, he swore to restore order as Batman, The Caped Crusader.
An inky, relentless crime drama, The Dark Knight picks up where the last movie left off with an aspect of him having to essentially start over with nothing — Bruce Wayne is still a philanthropic billionaire playboy industrialist, but Batman's lair has been burnt to the ground, his love has left him, and a new enemy, in the form of a joker playing card, threatens to emerge from the ether.
And he does. In a bank robbery scene, The Joker (Heath Ledger), shows just how serious he is, forcing Batman to join the fray. Stupendously sinister and genuinely frightening in his control of chaos and his unerring fixation on "the Bat Man", The Joker joins forces with a local mob and sets out to destroy everything in his wake. While this more baleful Batman does have a strong moral compass, he's forced to confront his own id, ego, and super-ego and perhaps even abandon his self-imposed code when pitted against a tireless adversary in whom he finds, much to his own unease, similarities to himself.
Meanwhile, as Bruce Wayne, he's fighting his lingering feelings of love for Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who makes the most of the thinnest role in the film), who has found solace in the arms of good guy, D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, who gets to explore an amazing character arc). Still with Bruce/Batman are his confidantes, Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman in an expanded role and biting into his best work in years), gadget-guy Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, in all his serene dignity), and personal butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine, pithy with pathos).
Of course, it is impossible to not think of Ledger's death earlier this year when watching the movie, but for most — myself included — it'll be fleeting and then gone once the you're drawn into The Joker's game of bat and mouse. He plays on his enemy's weaknesses, and then sadistically exploits them, slowly torturing and teasing until his own enthralled excitement is simmering just beneath his smeared, scar-concealing clown makeup.
Further enhancing his anarchic mien is tattered, color-chaotic clothing which, once gloriously tailored, looks like something Sid Vicious would have worn as dressed by Vivienne Westwood fever-dream inspired by the fictional Avenger, John Steed, with a touch of A Clockwork Orange's Droogs thrown in for good measure. But in this case, the clothes don't make the man: The Dark Knight places a heavy burden on its outlaw's tension-ratcheting believability, and Ledger more than fills those shoes. Even in moments which could come off as funny (in one scene, he's in drag), they are pure white-knuckle because you know this man is completely and contemptuously crackers and beyond hell-bent on achieving his evil ends.
There are a few moments of humor, but they're of the black and sardonic kind. If you're looking for a fun, colorful comic-book movie to take the kiddies to (it is PG-13), The Dark Knight probably isn't it. However, for those of any age with a sophisticated cinematic palate and a partiality for substance over flair, you just might find The Dark Knight the best movie of the year to date, and certainly the most accomplished entry in the series so far (I did).
Cinematographer Wally Pfister (constant Nolan companion, as well as lenser of such everyday-world beauties as 2002's Laurel Canyon) shot some scenes specifically for the IMAX "experience" and they're seamless. (The film will be shown in that big, square configuration, and in traditional widescreen). In fact, The Dark Knight is the very first movie I have actually enjoyed in the IMAX format (I never once felt overwhelmed by the picture, and I didn't get a headache). Furthermore, the locations and sets are Gothic, but not played up as such — there is no attempt to disguise historical Chicago as anything other than the chiseled, weathered, windswept, old city it is — lending, once again, to the movie's unbending realism.
My only complaints are minor. Mainly, the music score falls short. It's presented by award winners and elder statesmen Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, but it didn't feel fresh or risky in the least. While grounding the movie itself in topnotch crime-genre convention, it would have been vitalizing and pleasantly unsettling to hear some outside-the-box, chancier compositions. (At least, the music doesn't get in the way.) Furthermore, the gravely Batman voice the otherwise flawless Bale employs is just this side of too much.
While it certainly is not a horror movie per se, fans of the genre will find much to glom onto in The Joker's villainy, Batman's almost masochistic despair, wicked weapons of death and destruction, and pulse-pounding suspense.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson
7/15/08: It's not often I'm lucky enough to be able to revisit my movie reviews and add thoughts upon another screening. I first saw The Dark Knight about 10 days ago in preparation for the junket, and wrote the review a few days later. I saw it again last night (also on IMAX) at an all-media screening. I still feel it's an iron-clad crime drama (yeah, I know my opening paragraph is audacious! But it's like the cover on a book… I need to draw you in with some sizzle before you get to the steak) — however, this time I was able to set aside my appreciation of that darker aspect, and the interpersonal relationships of the characters, and focus on the more fun and adrenaline-spiked moments. There are several chuckle-coaxing one-liners, and a lot more stunts, than I originally remembered. The Dark Knight is a well-rounded comic-book movie / crime-drama / action picture (and yeah, I'll be seeing it again!).