Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan, you've done it again.

Leaving the theater after watching his spectacular film Memento in 2000, I was speechless. I drove home with my normally extroverted, talkative, cinephile friend in a completely silent, awe-struck car, utterly bewildered by the stroke of genius we had just witnessed. And Nolan's newest masterpiece The Dark Knight was no different from my first experience with the director; I spent the entire car ride from Universal City back home to La Habra in total silence, trying both to contemplate what I had just witnessed while at the same time catch my breath and relax, rendered almost sore from my constant finger-clenching and body-tensing. The breathtaking cinematography and heights (both literal and metaphorical) this film achieves along with outstanding performances from the entire cast left me jarred, shaken, fascinated, disturbed, and once again, Nolan, awe-struck.

The film (which I saw in IMAX, and highly recommend you do the same) opens with a bird's-eye-view of floor-to-ceiling skyscrapers as the camera dollys in to huge glass windows, accompanied by an ominous and rattling bass-driven score that certainly sets a nice tone. Nolan's vision of Gotham is real to him. He sees this place as a real city doubling as a metaphor for urban decay, corruption and crime, but nonetheless not a place of constant night. Unlike Tim Burton's overly and vomit-inducingly stylized Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), a day in the life of Nolan's Gotham City has moments of daylight quite true to real life. Nolan allows the buildings, streets, and sets to maintain a sense of realism while still enduring a gritty, dank feeling, a fine line that Burton steps over with both Batman films he tried to tackle. Although I think Burton's visual interpretation of Bruce Wayne's and the Penguin's inner anguish in Returns works well enough, he still thought of the story as a comic book at heart. Nolan shies away from this graphic, hyper-stylized world into one that every urbanite can relate to, making the film that much more personal and frightening to the audience. Because he sets up a Gotham that is dirty yet deliberate, it makes the villains that much more realistic.

And what villains.

This is ultimately a movie about the villains. Batman is, of course, a major portion of the plot. But Nolan chose to delve more into the psyche of the Joker and the moral collapse of Harvey Dent in this episode than he did in Batman Begins, where the majority of the internal struggle, psychological profiling and background story was based around Bruce Wayne. We are introduced to the Joker as he stands on a street corner, his back to the camera, a bag slung over his shoulder and a clown face in his hand. We know it's the Joker without even seeing his face, his presence is that strong. And the way we know it's him was spawned from the saturated advertising for this film, the major media attention received for Heath Ledger's death, and the steadily growing hype for the project leading up to its release. We didn't need a background story for the Joker the way we indulged for Bruce Wayne; it's just understood that he's a total tortured nutso. This man is deceptive to the core, constantly throwing out twists for Batman to try to figure out, puzzles for the police to unravel. When you see him face-to-face with his potential victims, he tells two different stories of how he obtained his scars. Which one should the audience believe? Probably neither, seeing as this man (and I hesitate to call him that) has no problem lying to gain the sympathy of those with actual feelings before slicing a smile into their face identical to his own. One of these two monologues does, however, provides us with the film's most memorable, pop culturally-relevant line "Why so SERIOUS?", a quote that will stack up no doubt against dozens of others in filmic history.

The late Heath Ledger put so much into this character, he almost looks possessed; at no time does he even resemble himself, not in his face, not in his voice, not in his actions. There is only a brief shot of the Joker without his haphazard, melting and smudged greasepaint; the rest of the film shows the audience a twisted, glaring, joyless man who is incredibly psychologically complex for just a "comic book" character. And Nolan understood this, giving his audience the tortured, evil and not-quite decipherable version of the Joker we see.

And please, let's not forget about Aaron Eckhart.

Nolan really shows us a complete character reversal in Harvey Dent, the District Attorney who Batman constantly refers to as Gotham's real hero. He is really the do-gooder with a clean public image who Batman understands is more important to the city than himself. He is the chance this city has to clean-up, he's the ultimate do-gooder, putting half of the city's criminals-at-large behind bars and promising to put an end to the Joker's antics. Without giving too much away, Harvey has a stroke of bad luck, and has a literal two-faced transformation from a good-hearted innocent to a revenge-seeking sadist. Two-Face doesn't necessarily have it in for Batman, but for anyone who still has love in their lives. Anything Eckhart emits from between his clenched, half-exposed lips, any time he moves his eyelid-lacking eyeball, I couldn't help but cringe. I saw the original concept art for this character, and didn't believe they could possibly interpret it into functioning make-up, but honestly, it's pretty spot-on to the original idea. We have no compassion for the Joker because all we know of him is evil. But after Harvey's face is destroyed, we understand where his pain stems from, where his anguish resides. We can identify with him, and want him to survive this life-changing trial he's been presented with.

This is a story about struggle. It focuses on Batman's internal struggle of maintaining his secret identity despite the Joker's insistence on its revelation, Dent's struggle to fight the dense criminal underworld, Lt. Gordon's struggle between relying on Batman and his police force to clean up Gotham's streets.

This also a story about psychology and morality. The film delves into the brain of the Joker and his henchmen, who proves to have no monetary motives behind his terrorist actions; he commits these acts to send a message. His psychology proves to be possessed by pure evil intentions, never emoting remorse, sometimes not even extracting joy from his actions. The story touches on Batman's moral dilemma to remain a do-gooder, never resorting to a firearm, never intentionally killing anyone. He adopts the major deaths that occur at the Joker's hand as his own fault, revealing his morals and his inner psyche.

This is a film that I may not want to see again for a long time. It was emotionally draining and disturbing, yet provocative, definitive, and a must-see. If you have any place in your nostalgic heart for an ultimate version of Batman, you will not be disappointed by what I wouldn't mind being the last installment of the franchise.

1 comment:

Diana Marie said...

i really love how the villians in nolan's gotham could actually exist. it makes it more real and intense. sergio, his brother and i were discussing which villians we would want to see in the next (if there is one) and some of them don't really seem like they could work all that well, like mr. freeze or mystique (i'm pretty sure thats his name, but don't quote me on it). i was pretty upset with maggies performance, only because she's not a bad ass really. it just seemed forced. and i enjoyed how there was much more batman than there was bruce wayne, emphasizing how he really is becoming batman, and bruce is becoming his alter-ego. just like maggies character rachel says, bruce isn't ready to give up batman. he is embracing it! oh and christian bale was, as always, amazing.