Thursday, July 17, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW :: The Dark Knight

Only very slight plot spoilers below, but some discussion of stylistic elements--if you're like me and would prefer not to know the weak parts to watch out for before you see a movie, then feel free to stop reading.

First of all, if you were thinking of taking your kids to this movie, I would not, unless your kids are made of some stern, nightmare-proof stuff.

Because that image of Heath Ledger as the Joker up above is just the start. This isn't a Joker you would ever want to buy your kid an action figure of--this is a Joker you want to wipe out of your mind as quickly as possible. This isn't a clever, wisecracking, somewhat psychopathic antihero--the Joker of "A Dark Knight" is a self-described "agent of chaos", and makes good on his claim again and again.

I had no real intentions of seeing this movie, due in part to how incredibly creepy it is that Heath Ledger killed himself just weeks after shooting the movie. It's hard to separate the real-world Ledger from his Joker; similar to Owen Wilson's portrayal of a man who's just tried to commit suicide in The Darjeeling Limited, which was released comparatively soon after Wilson himself attempted suicide. Watching that movie was like waiting for the end of a joke you've already heard a slightly different version of before. A joke you already know is not funny, not even a little.

But unlike The Darjeeling Limited, where real world events distract from the faux world of the film, the sad circumstances of Ledger's death, if anything, inform his portrayal of the Joker. Macabre, yes, I know--but again, this isn't a sympathetic Joker, who you half want to win, dancing through the museum to a soundtrack by Prince. This dude is just murder on two feet: where Jack Nicholson as the Joker looked cool and suave, Ledger is tattered, filthy, and has teeth like cream-style corn. He's the worst kind of clown nightmare, and it's absolutely easy to believe that at any moment he will do ANYthing, and that whatever it is will be AWFUL.

Okay, enough about the Joker: but I will say that Heath Ledger is super fantastic in this movie. Holy Cow.

In fact, everybody is, almost without exception, incredibly good in this movie. Christian Bale is a great Bruce Wayne, especially Wayne-As-Playboy-Jerk. Morgan Freeman was surprisingly charming as down-home executive Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman is so amazing as Jim Gordon that it was like he stepped right out of Batman: Year One. He's so accomplished an actor that you have to look hard to see how great he really is: in a scene where he's being told something awful by the Joker, the only sign of whatever inner turmoil must surely be raging inside of him is the twitching and flaring of his nostrils; far more convincing than a bunch of gasping and raiment-tearing.

But the real tragedy of the movie is Aaron Eckhart, who plays Harvey Dent. Not that he's bad--he's great, really great. He not only makes you like Harvey Dent--you LOVE him. You want him to succeed--in many ways, he is the hero of the movie, if not the titular one (although you can make a strong case in that direction as well). And this is the problem with the movie: there are too many eggs in this basket.

Director Christopher Nolan ambitiously--and correctly, with this subject matter--sets his movie up along grand themes of heroism, where the protagonist struggles against the dichotomy between his humanity and his iconic role within the story. The problem is that pretty much everybody in the movie is having this struggle on some level, whether it be Batman's struggle with his role in Gotham as hero/antihero, Jim Gordon's struggle with justice and the hard realities of his job, or Dent's struggle between his "white knight" heroism and the inconstancy of everything around him: judicial system, city government, and a criminal that doesn't operate under any rules at all.

While I wouldn't say that The Dark Knight is necessarily crowded with too many heroes or villains, like some of its predecessors, I WOULD say that it's crowded with too many great characters and performances. Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, and Christian Bale are a great tripod of actors--everyone knows that three is a magic number. But hugely, impressively, surprisingly, all three are completely outshone and upstaged by Heath Ledger's Joker. I know it's a weird criticism for a movie, especially a "superhero" movie--"those actors are too good." But it's distracting. Ledger is so good at being so terrible that the thematic struggles of Batman and Harvey Dent (and the somewhat glossed over struggle of Gordon), are only momentarily fascinating, and then instantly forgotten whenever the Joker comes onscreen.

Again, it's a dumb criticism, for what was a really fun, absorbing movie. But a 150-something minute movie--I wonder if Christopher Nolan, with a toolbox of such great performances, didn't give in a little in the editing room. While Ledger was definitely electrifying, I think that if he'd been used a little more sparingly, the other parts of the film would have had more chance to shine. It's like carefully seasoning a dish to perfection, and then throwing black pepper all over the top of it. Ledger is utterly convincing as a deranged, capricious, and calculating psychopath, but so much so that he drowns out the more nuanced flavors of the rest of the movie.

All the same, wow--good comic book movie. Go see it soon, but honestly--leave those kids at home.

15 comments:

Seth Peagler said...

I agree with most of Dusty's points. For me the greatest part of this film was how oddly realistic everything tried to be - especially Ledger's Joker. Gone are the inane elements from previous incarnations. Instead we see a character who we know little about (aside from his heinous actions) but can fully believe to be a real person. Yet as unbelievable as most comic films are (and rightly so), it seemed to me that this film succeeds largely due to the fact that it seems to earnestly try to portray what might actually happen if a crazy person dressed up like a bat in the name good intentions. More accurately, the film deals with the societal ramifications that such an act of vigilantism might inspire. As with "Iron Man," this film goes to show that when studios hire good writers, directors and actors, they can actually make quality films based on comics.

Vee ! said...

I'll have to come back and actually read this blog post after I've actually seen the movie. Now, at the risk of sounding like a total lamer, when is someone gonna blog about the upcoming awesomeness that is the Watchmen movie? Or should that wait until it's a little closer to the release date?

Jason Wheatley said...

Dusty, you wondered if Nolan did some cutting in the editing room...I actually read an interview somewhere where he said that the DVD will have precious little in the way of deleted scenes, because they used almost everything they shot for the movie in the final cut. Which does explain why it's so long.

And Vee, the first Watchmen trailer is running in front of Dark Knight, at least at the showing we went to. I also watched it again online at home. It does look sharp, and Zach Snyder did an awesome job with 300, but I have to say I'm very trepidatious about him actually pulling this one off.

Rusty Baily said...

Man, I thought it'd be impossible to top Batman Begins...but they did it! Ledgers joker was SURREAL! I can see why there's internet buzz of an oscar nominatin! HOLY OSCAR WORTHY PERFORMANCE BATMAN! He brought such depth to a character that had been sooo "Ceasar Romero" campy for sooo long! Me likey!

Dustin Harbin said...

As Seth says, they definitely went for reality in a lot of places. For instance, the Joker seemed almost hyper-real--it didn't take a lot of suspension of disbelief to believe he's a psycho. On the other hand, with other stuff being so "real"--Batman himself always struck me as a little ridiculous when he would appear on screen, in his bat-head-thing and cape.

Ted Tarver said...

I inadvertently bought a ticket to the midnight showing of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, so sadly, I don't have anything to add.

Anonymous said...

Wow i just got back from the dark knight and was blown away by the movie. When the joker would come onscreen the entire theater would just get super quiet and you could tell that everyone was hanging on every word that ledger would say. Superb acting by everyone, great script and a great director has me putting this in the top 5 superhero movies of all time! It has a couple of twists and turns that were unexpected, and also bruce wayne was so fleshed out in batman begins that he is really not a focal point at all, and that's a good thing because this movie is more about batman or rather that bruce wayne is batman and he has to accept that fact. Anyway if your a batman fan such as myself (all batman comics from issue #150 through last week, dvd's etc.) i promise you will not be let down by this movie. Thanks for reading, Fletch.

Dustin Harbin said...

Ted: best comment ever.

FalseFace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FalseFace said...

Dustin I have to say this movie, despite its length, did not feel bloated like Spider-Man 3 or the sans Nolan Batman movies of the 90s. I must say I was a little scared when they said Gordon was dead. It brought back my disgust of the major disappoint with Superman having a son. The Dark Knight is an excellent movie.

Mark Darnell said...

like falseface said, when gordon was "dead" it worried me a bit for the future movies and how they relate to the comics, but even though someone pointed out to me before i saw it that "gordon gets to drive a SWAT truck" the surprise was still great. my one complaint was mostly the same as dustin's, i've always loved aaron eckhart and good god is he fantastic in the movie, but ledger just owns the rest of the cast.
i'm goin to see it again ASAP

Rusty Baily said...

So Ted, could you give a review of Kit Kittredge for us please?

Brian said...

This movie is almost as awesome as a day at Heroes Con.

Ted Tarver said...

Here's my three word review of Kit Kittredge: BRING SOME TISSUE.

Shawn Reynolds said...

Ted, when did you get so funny?