September 28, 2016

The Dark Knight (2008)

As Batman, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been fighting a non-stop war against Gotham City's criminal underworld, but his battle is catastrophically interrupted by the arrival of the Joker (Heath Ledger), an unhinged and unpredictable criminal mastermind who throws the entire city into chaos, with terrible consequences for Bruce, ex-girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman).

I realised while recently watching The Dark Knight that I have never reviewed it before. I have watched it many times over the past eight years. Not only is it my favourite film from 2008 it is also one of my favourite films of all time. It is a remarkable, quite masterful work of movie-making and for me a career high-point for its director Christopher Nolan. The bulk of the film alone would make it a genre masterpiece. At its centre, however, stands the late Heath Ledger in his most iconic, entertaining and skillful performance. We honestly had no idea his talent had developed so much and become so finely mastered until he had already passed away. It's an absolute tragedy.

There is a marvellous tension in The Dark Knight, which sits precariously on a tightrope between realism and comic book-inspired abstraction. On the one hand it presents easily the most grounded and believable Gotham City and Batman ever committed to screen. On the other hand it is still Gotham City and Batman: there is a suspension of disbelief required for the source material that a fully realistic take simply cannot provide. That tension seems explicit in the story as well: the Joker arrives into a realist Gotham and violently transforms it into something much more elaborate and larger-than-life. 'Don't talk like one of them,' the Joker says at one point, 'you're not.' Them being the ordinary world. While the preceding film, Batman Begins, gave Batman an origin, it is The Dark Knight that finally establishes an appropriate environment for him to inhabit. By the end of the film Gotham's criminal families are in disarray, and the city's idea of crime and justice transformed from gangsters and police officers to terrorist clowns and men in capes.

Heath Ledger's Joker dominates the film, in the manner in which the Joker usually does. He entered the film with the unenviable task of following up Jack Nicholson's performance in the role back in 1989's Batman. In presenting a new version, Ledger and Nolan wisely side-stepped much of Nicholson's version. The Dark Knight Joker is a more vicious, unpredictable and messy sort of character. His smile is the result of vicious scars. His white face and green hair are the result of greasepaint and dye. Ledger draws mannerisms from a bundle of sources, primarily musician and actor Tom Waits but also hints of Nicholson and a nod towards Brandon Lee's Eric Draven (The Crow). The result is the finest Joker presented on screen to date, one which achieves the difficult task of being both scary and funny. Unlike Nicholson's version this Joker doesn't get an origin or a true identity: he bursts onto the scene fully-formed, and denies the audience any chance to understand his background or motivations. It is a perfect fit for the dark, gritty take on Batman that Nolan has constructed.

As Bruce Wayne and Batman, Christian Bale admittedly falls a little short of his work in Batman Begins. It is not Bale's fault in my opinion: the screenplay gives him unnecessarily long sentences to deliver in his dialogue, and coupled with his hoarse, shouting voice as Batman it begins to sound fairly ludicrous. Either a change of cadence in the voice or a shortening of the lines would have made a world of difference. The screenplay does excel in cementing down Bruce Wayne's character. He begins the film performing the role of masked vigilante until the city can find a more suitable replacement. He ends it with the love of his life dead, the gangs replaced by madmen, and nothing left in his life but Batman. As I noted above: Batman Begins introduces the mythos, but The Dark Knight properly establishes it.

The supporting cast are essentially flawless. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes as Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes, and essentially blows the latter's performance out of the water. Aaron Eckhart is a strong Harvey Dent, and a fascinating Two-Face during the film's final third. Michael Caine adds both depth and levity to his role as Bruce's faithful butler Alfred. Gary Oldman gets a huge amount of dramatic material with which to work, and work it he does: the film's central core may be wound around Bruce Wayne, but James Gordon orbits it very closely. He begins the film using Batman as a resource to repair his city; he ends it with his faith shattered, and the job still undone.

On top of all of the characters there is the exceptional production design and photography, the stunning musical score, and the outstanding action sequences. The mid-film street chase, involving exploding cars, crashing helicopters and an eighteen-wheeler truck flipping end on end in the middle of a central city street, is a particular stand-out. It is all particularly impressive because as far as possible the set pieces have been created using physical props and stunts. The production team really did flip a full-size truck upside down in downtown Chicago. It all gives the film a grit and tactility that's often missing from superhero movies.

I remember when The Dark Knight was released theatrically a lot of critics cited Heat as an obvious influence, and it's a fair comparison. Like Heat, The Dark Knight tells a deliberately long and exhausting story. It is an urban epic, and one that - by its conclusion - makes even the viewer feel as if they have slogged their way through hell. While there's an argument to be made that you could split the film in two - certainly it would give more room for Harvey Dent's tenure as Two-Face - I think something valuable would be lost in the process. It's supposed to be a long film. It's telling a huge, emotional story.

The Dark Knight is not just my favourite Batman film (and it is), or my favourite comic book movie (it's that too): it is one of my favourite films out of any period, country or genre. I never tire of it, whether it's the exceptional action, the gripping story or Heath Ledger's utterly memorable performance. It's a genuine movie classic.

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