Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008

Revisiting The Dark Knight

By David Luhrssen
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The Dark Knight has caught up with Titanicís record box office ticket sales and is one of the most talked about films in years. Itís the biggest moviegoing phenomenon of 2008, larger even than Sex and the City.

Heath Ledger was a rising actor and his role as the Joker in the sequel to the popular Batman Begins would have cinched his stardom had he lived. His death was good publicity for The Dark Knight, yet morbid curiosity alone would not have sustained its run at the box office past opening weekend. The movie would have faded fast if it hadnít resonated in profound and sustained ways with audiences. Transforming anxiety into entertainment, The Dark Knight enabled viewers to reflect on our unsettled world and its moral dilemmas in the fun house mirror of fantasy.

The Dark Knight maintains a hold on the imagination largely but not entirely through its unforgettable star performance. But dead or alive, brilliant or not, Ledger was destined to dominate The Dark Knight. The unspoken rule of Hollywood is that the bad guys tend to get the best lines. They are usually licensed to be more flamboyant than their opponents, more intriguing and mysterious. Poor Christian Bale is overshadowed as Batman (or ďthe BatmanĒ as heís often called in a nod to the earliest comic strips), left to brood heavily under his kinky black leather mask. The screen belongs to Ledgerís Joker, even if the streets of Gotham are up for grabs.

Itís a terrific performance, eclipsing Jack Nicholsonís memorable turn as the Joker in Tim Burtonís 1989 Batman. Surely Ledger had seen Nicholsonís performance, but he seems to be channeling from sources more distant. His Joker is part Charlie Manson, a twisted and motor-mouthed street philosopher dissecting all accepted truths, and part Humphrey Bogart in his darkest roles, a little hunched and with the strange gleam and twitchy face of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.

In The Dark Knight, the Joker is an evil trickster, the embodiment of chaos, and Ledgerís wound-up performance is perfect. There is no plan the Joker wonít undermine, no ally he wonít double-cross, no scheme he wonít overturn. His rule is that there are no rules worth obeying, no truth thatís not a lie. He even changes his origin story, the tale of how he became so grotesque, three times by movieís end. The Satanic edge of the Jokerís character reveals itself in his keen eye for the dark crevices in every soul he encounters. He will always tempt everyone to do the wrong thing, usually with clever rationalizations.

Impossible to pen in or pin down, the Jokerís capacity for brutality unrestricted by reason or faith. He throws gasoline and a match on stacks of money and delights at the crackling bonfire. With his pasty pancake face marked with a broad red mouth slash and black rings around his expressive eyes, heís a sinister clown, a glib-tongued master of evasion. Although the crusading and seemingly incorruptible District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), labels him a terrorist, the Joker puts even Al Quaeda and the Shining Path in the shade. How to fight an enemy without a cause, an avatar of nihilism wearing a vest fitted with explosives?

In rampage after rampage, Dent, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Bruce Wayne in the guise of Batman strain to hold back this walking nightmare. Poor Christian Bale. Batmanís ostensible love interest, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), excites no chemistry, even when sheís on Dentís arm. The most Bale gets as an actor is to speak in a low voice of bitter hostility, reeking of Clint Eastwoodís Dirty Harry. The Joker makes his day repeatedly.

Strain a little and mixed messages about Americaís role in the post-911 world can be heard. One of Batmanís billionaire alter egoís faithful sidekicks, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), resigns after his boss asks him to tap every cell phone in Gotham to locate the Jokeróbut not until after the job is done. Like most Americans, TheDark Knight is uncertain over the balance between liberty and security. Batmanís trusted valet Alfred (Michael Caine) warns, ďKnow your limits, Master Wayne.Ē With a touch of Cockney humility and shrewdness, Caine adds sparkle to the mostly midnight-black film.

Too bad Alfredís warning goes unheeded. The limits of power are a persistent subtext in The Dark Knight. Dentís for-broke assault on Gothamís multi-ethnic Mafia, tied to an officially sanctioned Chinese money launderer, prompts the mob to call on the Joker. The consequences on all sides are unexpected. The mobsters are squeezed out by the Jokerís berserker brutality, his contempt for anything as conventional as crime for profit, and the agents of order, including the Batman, are tempted to resort to torture.

Helmed as was Batman Begins by Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight has none of the eager creativity within a tight economy that marked his indie debut, Memento. Harnessing the big budget resources of Hollywood, Nolan endows The Dark Knight with a hard-edged look, the sharp-edged geometry of a modern metropolis. Even the sounds are harsh. Bullet casings clank loudly on concrete, windows shatter under the impact of gunfire, fast cars squeal through traffic. The music is relatively subtle but insistent, keeping the tension high. Toward the conclusion the narrative begins to crumble from the computer-generated visual excess of bone breaking violence, exploding cars and demolished buildings, even if the Joker injects a bit of snarky humor into the mayhem. What carries over from Memento is the sense that reality and our perceptions are being tested in ways that would never happen in a Superman movie. Even so, The Dark Knight clocks in around a half hour too long for its own good.

Like a really bad news day, there are only a few points of light in the darkness but they are important. In one of the most moving scenes, the passengers on a pair of ferryboats, faced with the chance to save themselves by pushing a button detonating the other boat, are finally moved to toss the detonators into the river. The Joker is momentarily flummoxed. In a world of corruption and decay, people canít always be counted on to do the wrong thing.

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