Monday, July 21, 2008
Darkest before the dawn
This past weekend saw the record-breaking release of The Dark Knight, the highly anticipated sequel to Batman Begins. As a life-long Batman fan, I would have been excited for this movie no matter what-- especially considering how much I enjoyed Christopher Nolan's first installment, a moody and action-packed origin story. But after the death of Heath Ledger, who completely reinvents Batman's greatest nemesis the Joker, I was more eager than ever. The arrival of Joker had been teased at the end of Begins, and many wondered if it was a good idea; after all, Jack Nicholson's portrayal in Batman (1989) was terrific and seemed all but definitive. The announcement of Ledger seemed strange indeed; after all, while he was a respected actor, his good looks seemed incongruous with the bizarre character. But every on-set report and early review suggested he was creating something special... and the movie itself was touted as outstanding in virtually every aspect. I'm happy to report that everything you've heard about The Dark Knight is true. It's relentlessly dark. It's dense and thought provoking. And yes, Ledger is mesmerizing-- but more on that later. The Gotham City we return to here is a little different than the one depicted in Batman Begins. The criminals have been forced to regroup and go under the radar; a host of well-meaning fools have donned makeshift Batman costumes in an attempt to "help"; and the police and the population at large have decided they might not be so crazy about their newfound protector. (There's actually a warrant out for his arrest; between this movie and Hancock, superheros have it tough this summer!) Even Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) isn't sure how he feels about the state of things. He's annoyed by the wannabes and both inspired and threatened by Harvey Dent (a superb Aaron Eckhart), a hot shot D.A. who looks like Gotham's great white hope-- but is also romancing Bruce's old flame Rachel. (This time, Ray Ray's portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is much more adept at playing a grown-up than Katie Holmes was.) Into this fray enters the Joker, a mysterious, makeup-wearing maniac who seems motivated by nothing more or less than a destructive and anarchic glee. Joker's sudden dominance over gangland sets in motion an unsettling chain of events that have cops, citizens, and elected officials scrambling in panic. (I was on edge for pretty much this entire movie; Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's sublimely menacing score only enhances this effect.) Over the course of two and a half hours (a little too long, but who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth?), we watch events awash in moral complexity as the characters clash, strategize, and mourn. There are schemes on both sides, intense battles, and tragic losses. Nolan's film plays out on a grand scale, but never succumbs to the sort of mindless drivel that permeates too many lesser comic book movies. What he's aiming for here is something subtler, darker, and infinitely more effecting than a mere collection of stylized set pieces. He certainly engaged a dynamite cast to bring his vision to life: Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman all engage in supporting roles; only Bale, so appealing and multi-dimensional in Batman Begins, seems in need of meatier material. Plus, that heinously exaggerated rasp he uses as Batman has got to go. (He seems to fall victim to the same problem that plagued original big-screen Batman Michael Keaton; he's outshone by his villains and supporting cast.) But back to Ledger: all sympathy and hype aside, his performance here is nothing short of extraordinary. He owns every scene he's in and always leaves you wanting more. Ledger hits just the right notes of creepiness and humor, expertly crafting one of the great screen baddies of all time. Scenes like his opening proposal to Gotham's criminals (they're ready to shoot him on sight, but he ensures they're forced to take him with deadly seriousness) and his sinister taunting of a guard ("How many of your friends have I killed?" he asks in a sing-song crazy voice that stops just short of camp) are gruesomely, unforgettably compelling. Ledger's willingness to so thoroughly immerse himself in the character, even appearing in drag for one memorable sequence, signify him as one of the greatest young actors of the 21st century. It's certainly a shame that neither Ledger nor movie fans will ever be able to revisit his dazzling interpretation of the Joker. Meanwhile, Eckhart follows his own character's journey from hard-working do-gooder to tragic monster; 13 years after Tommy Lee Jones' hackneyed turn in Batman Forever (1995), we're finally getting the psychologically complex, deeply disturbing Two Face we deserve. (Be warned: Harvey's mutilated visage is not for the faint of heart.) In the end, The Dark Knight shines as a rich and rewarding cinematic experience, one that pushes the boundaries of not just the superhero mythos but film in general. I can't wait to see it again.