This morning, two days after my midnight screening of The Dark Knight, I read that line and howled. One laughs so one doesn’t throw up.
That film messed with me, as it did with lots of other people. I didn’t want to talk to anybody after seeing it. I’ve already warned my friend Alicia that seeing The Dark Knight on the big screen might be too overwhelming for her, and that she should probably wait until DVD if she wants to see it. (And Alicia was very impressed with docbrite’s novel Exquisite Corpse, so usually she can handle dark.) I’m even torn about whether or not I want to see it a second time – though if I do, I’ll get to an IMAX screening – because of how tough a story it is.
I’m also weirdly protective of the film. To me, even talking about the movie’s mood is almost a spoiler, and I don’t want to give spoilers here. (I can give spoilers if I need them to make a point, like in my What Dreams May Come review.) I don’t want to affect the purity of the experience for the next viewers by saying “Oh! It’s so amazing when ___________! And when ___________!” And for a lot of those moments, taking them out of context is a disservice, risking turning the review into something from the SNL sketch “The Chris Farley Show”: “Wasn’t that cool?” (Cleolinda Jones, one of my favorite writers on LiveJournal, had similar problems processing the movie, as she admits at the start of this spoiler-heavy entry.) But the bottom line is that the film gets an astonishing number of things right, and becomes epic, overwhelming, and emotionally wrenching.
One of the things Batman Begins – a very good, if (to me) not great, film – did to improve on the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batmans was to better connect Gotham City to the world as we know it (and make the city, via location shooting and spiffy special effects, look like Chicago on steroids), so that when actual world history was brought into the first film’s plot, it didn’t seemed grafted on. (In that film, Batman/Bruce Wayne learns that an ancient group responsible for making earlier civilizations collapse is about to do the same thing to ours, by destroying Gotham. The group believes that, like the other civilizations it had brought down, modern civilization has become too decadent to deserve to survive. Batman, believing the world he knows is worth saving, backs up his belief.) Ultimately, slight attempts at psychological depth aside, those earlier Batmans were about Batman fighting supervillains until the supervillains stopped moving. They’re about “Batman saves people,” not so much about “Why does Batman save people?” These films Christopher Nolan has directed and co-written (with David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan) are about that. And The Dark Knight continues in that direction.
The overarching plot of The Dark Knight is simpler than you imagine, almost fairy-tale simple (forces of good try to help Gotham, forces of evil try to do evil), but the complications and twists-and-turns worked into that plot feel honest and earned, like what happens when the police raid the banks early on. Both the good guys and the bad guys have triumphs and failures; both sides surprise you. And the filmmakers don’t fall into the “oh aren’t we clever?” trap, either; they avoid getting ridiculous, though they skirt the edge with the “cell phone radar” plot point. I forgive that, even, because the film deals with the implications of that idea; what Batman does with that has consequences, and Batman deals with them.
I’ve said nothing so far about the Joker, because…what’s there to say? The late Heath Ledger indeed did an amazing, jaw-dropping, iconic job of playing such an evil character, and his work deserves to be seen. ’nuff said. As Cleolinda put it, “I am beyond trying to put a value judgment on Heath Ledger's performance. I really don't know that it's possible at this point. The Joker just... is.” I can’t improve on that thought.
OK, I’ll try. What a tightrope walk, the way the Joker was created through the writing, the acting and the directing. He’s clever without being too clever, honestly scary and horrifying, and, ultimately, unknowable, unpredictable, and unexplainable, which makes him ever more horrific. And he’s still funny through it all: he makes you laugh even as he commits terrible acts, because of his physical tics, his enjoyment of pain, and even his occasional peevishness. (You’ll see what scene I mean.)
I’m increasingly happy about the cast, top-to-bottom good from huge roles to small roles. (Yay for Anthony Michael Hall! And for Cillian Murphy’s cameo as the Scarecrow! And all hail Tiny Lister, Jr.…) I have a soft spot for Eric Roberts, going back to Runaway Train, but usually he’s in terrible films; I’m glad he’s prominently in a good one again, as the mob boss Marone. The returning cast continues its solid work. I’m especially fond of Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, on his way to becoming Commissioner Gordon and remaining decent when surrounded by corruption. Christian Bale makes me want to see the film of American Psycho, because as Batman/Bruce Wayne he plays a disturbed, charismatic character doing good; I want to see him play a disturbed, charismatic character doing evil. He really does embody the issues Bruce Wayne/Batman has.*
And unlike the walking blank that was Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes in the first film, Maggie Gyllenhaal brings some real-world weight to the role. One of the script’s weaknesses is how underwritten Rachel is this time – we just have to take it as given that Rachel is Bruce’s conscience, instead of hearing her say the things that show she’s that, as Dawes did in Batman Begins – so Gyllenhaal has to show that through body language. She does: Dawes is amused and slightly irreverent, telling Harvey Dent “If the mob’s not gunning for you, you’re not doing your job,” but ultimately decent and ready to call out Bruce on his behavior: “Harvey doesn’t know you well enough to know when you’re making fun of him, but I do.” I didn’t think of Gyllenhaal in that part originally, but it’s good the filmmakers did. (And to be fair, I find Maggie Gyllenhaal far more attractive than Katie Holmes, so there’s the OMG HOT factor, too.)
I think the problems I have with the film might lessen after a second viewing: some late-movie plot developments seemed to come out of the blue (like in the sequence that includes the Joker leaning out of the car; sorry to be so vague), but I’m willing to think I may simply have missed something that would be clearer if I see it again.
While I wasn’t a big fan of the first film’s score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, and I think that their iconic two-note signature might be over-used this time, I do admire the composers for their almost musique concrete approach to scoring the Joker: some of his scenes get nothing but this insistent one-note noise, scraping at your consciousness. It’s ugly and difficult and perhaps an aural hint of the noise in the Joker’s mind. I’ve never been as big a Zimmer fan as a lot of people I know, but I can appreciate his work, and I’ll add that his Batman music grew out of a blended orchestral/electronic style he started developing with 1989’s Black Rain (with the aid of the late, great orchestrator Shirley Walker). This was extra-evident with the final scene of The Dark Knight, but going in a – say it with me – darker direction than in Black Rain. Befitting a darker, more overwhelming film.
Wow. I did this review with almost no spoilers. I’m proud of that.
* Why not rate the earlier movie Bat-men? Michael Keaton did well at portraying Bruce Wayne’s eccentricity and pain, which suited the 1989 Batman, and he did a decent job of giving his Batman a real presence so that he wasn’t overwhelmed by the Batsuit. He also, heart-breakingly, seemed like a Bruce Wayne who could feel love, and maybe fall in love (too bad love interest Vicki Vale was so poorly written); only Bale since had had a chance to portray a Bruce Wayne who seems capable of loving someone. Batman Returns made the mistake of trying to make Batman a quipster, which he isn’t really, and that was distancing, even with the formidable Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman offering a worthy, messed-up potential love interest. Val Kilmer brought a good physicality to his performance in Batman Forever – he cut a dashing, amused figure as Bruce Wayne – but without the eccentricity; he’s simply too normal, with his quiet Batman voice just a quiet voice, without a hint of Bruce Wayne’s contained anger. (I didn’t buy him falling for Nicole Kidman as Meridian Chase, either.) And I’ll never watch Batman and Robin to assess George Clooney’s performance.