Jokers Wild

After successfully redrawing the origins of his superhero character in Batman Begins three years ago, British director Christopher Nolan continues his story in the morbid and dangerous Dark Knight; a thrilling crime story cut with an acid misanthropy and one of the films of the year.

Opening with a brilliantly choreographed bank robbery, the film soon establishes Batman’s (Christian Bale) struggle to bring peace to Gotham City. As the media accuse Batman of being an all-powerful vigilante, the mafia have tightened their grip on the underworld, with the help of malevolent outside influences disguised as investment capitalists. But even the collected criminal gangs are unprepared for a new threat, the dangerously psychotic Joker (Heath Ledger), an amoral criminal who believes in nothing but disorder. While the Joker hatches his plans to destroy the city and its masked hero, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and his girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are positioning themselves to affect a political solution to the crime wave, with the help of Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman).

Seeing an opportunity to rescue Batman from the camp excesses of the 1990s, director Christopher Nolan and his brother and co-writer Jonathan elevate their superhero from the doldrums of genre-bound familiarity and in the process, redefine blockbuster entertainment. This is a movie that takes the mythology and accoutrements of its familiar central character and turns it into a meditation on bleak themes and unsettling politics that speaks directly to how the world is today. The Dark Knight is a morality play that casts good against evil, order against chaos but more than that, it comprehensively blurs the lines between right and wrong, carefully measuring out how far the good can go to do the right thing, and directly questioning the morality of those methods. These are not issues the malevolent Joker is overly concerned with, as Alfred says “some people just want to watch the world burn”, these are aspects of Batman’s own consciousness, closely wrapped in his own struggle with his identity, his motivations and his reasoning. Nolan creates a shadowed world where being a hero is a Sisyphean struggle, where triumph is snatched away as soon as it is won and order is impossible.

Batman is only as strong as the villain that opposes him, and Ledger provides an indelible bad guy. Arriving fully formed and unexplained, The Joker is a creation of pure untrammelled evil, a creepy sadist in an unsettling green suit, flashing his favoured knives (“so I can savour the moment”) and compulsively licking his torn lips. From behind his greasy white makeup, smudged black eyes and livid red scars, Ledger gives a chillingly hypnotic performance; frightening and violent but also intimate and occasionally sympathetic. More than what he looks like, it is what he represents that is the true horror of The Joker and Ledger clearly revels in becoming the unknowable engineer of bedlam, who believes in nothing other than himself. He has no morals, no conscience, no ambition beyond anarchy, no scheme to foil. He is the ultimate terrorist, and Batman can only stop him by, in part, becoming like him.

Faced with this powerhouse, Bale’s Batman is reduced, relying on a hoarse rasping delivery and all-powerful physicality when suited up and the actor’s easy charm and confidence when playing the playboy Bruce Wayne. The rest of the cast are again perfectly chosen. Michael Caine returns as the desert-dry butler Alfred and Gary Oldman reprises his honest cop Gordon, now promoted to Commissioner. Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over for the hapless Katie Holmes, playing the lost-love Rachel as a smart lawyer determined to fight for good while Aaron Eckhart is outstanding in the thanklessly straight role of politician Harvey Dent, aided by a stomach-churning transformation into the half-mad Two-Face, who should perhaps be nicknamed Half-Face.

More than his skill with the actors, Nolan has a consummate sense of place, creating a Gotham where even daylight is cast in a sombre blue, a beautifully realised place of towering skyscrapers and ash-blown cellars. Even in gloom, this is a beautiful production, emphatically photographed, edited with skill and precision and underlined with a driving score of throbbing chords and abstracted heavy metal. Six of the film’s most elaborate special effects sequences have been shot in the 65 millimetre IMAX format, adding a breathtaking sense of scale and pin-point visual precision to the already hyperkinetic action.

The Dark Knight is scattered, confused and frightening. It unfolds in fits and starts, breaking from one carefully positioned dramatic moment to rain chaos down on its characters. If Batman Begins showed us that in Nolan’s hands, this material is not just for the comic books, the sequel underlines that ambition. This is a haunted tragedy that recasts the ancient myths of the hero in an ultramodern nihilism, achieving a complexity of feeling that is difficult to achieve in any kind of art, let alone the multi-million dollar studio summer movie. It is simply unmissable.


The Unquiet Man said...

Happy birthday!

ColmC said...

can't wait to see this one. Ledger for Oscar? Big push for that down here obviously. 2.5 hours though, so that might have to be a gold class seat!

The Boozeness said...

So what did you think of the X Files?

Unknown said...

Hey Johnny,

Going to book The Dark Knight now on the basis of your review. We're trip to the SGC in Dungarvan. We've got it all down here in the Deise, boy. Come see us soon.


Will Errickson said...

Good review. Like your comments on the Joker himself. For me the pivotal performance/role in the movie is not the Joker, as awesome as Ledger is, nor Batman, nor even Two-Face. The real hero is Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, who operates as the "regular guy" in a world of bizarre, fantastical personalities.

Unknown said...

2 things on this....

1. An amazing movie, pure & simple. Ledger & Eckhart give engrossing performances as each of the respective badguys. The 'real' action is great, the script was great and Nolan's vision of a sombre and dirty Gotham is amazing. The only downside was Bale's over-the-top Batman voice & the Prisoner throwing the detonater away scene (cause we never saw that coming!)

2. As John eluded to, I saw this on iMax expecting a spectacle never to be repeated. What a load of sh!te. iMax has to be one of the most overrated things since Cherry Coke & we all know how that turned out! It's just a bloody bigger screen for gods sake. Still a great movie though

On a side note Will Errickson, Gary Oldman is one of the most highly underrated and hugley talented actors around today (like Robert Downey Jr until Iron Man). It's a pity he hasn't garnered more respect.