The Dark Knight

August, 2008, Thriller

Directed by:Christopher Nolan

Starring:Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Morgan Freeman

It’s a box-office sensation, setting record attendance figures everywhere it’s shown.

It features a memorable performance by a young actor who died mysteriously after bringing his demonically riveting character to life.

It has garnered unusually generous acclaim from many of the country’s film critics, who’ve ignored its comic-book source and find both visual artistry and darkly profound social commentary in its 2½ hour running time.

It also possesses a muddled plot brimming with intellectual dishonesty as it panders to the audiences’ appetite for violence while piously protesting against its actual use.

Director Christopher Nolan, who rescued the Batman franchise from sequel-hell with his cheerily engaging Batman Begins three years ago, has taken the caped crusader back into the social garbage-dump known as Gotham City in this often terrifying odyssey, squeezing all of the endearing comfort out of the genre’s typical reliance on the lofty ideals of pulp fiction heroism. Going way beyond this year’s examination of other superheroes’ larger-than-life failings, (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Hancock, etc) Nolan combines his abundant cinematic talents with Heath Ledger’s unnervingly creepy interpretation of The Joker, Batman’s well-known nemesis. In the process, the director delivers a slickly detailed action-melodrama featuring a repetitive cinematic meditation on the nature of violence in modern urban society. 

The film asks whether suppressing nihilistic chaos justifies using equally dehumanizing responses and whether society will actually encourage such action even as it condemns those who employ it. In light of U.S. foreign policy following 9/11, the notion that we must become evil in order to defeat evil may strike many as precisely the kind of demented logic that has propelled the current administration; but the fact that so many tickets have been sold to this grimly unsettling example of storytelling in the dark suggests many of us find the analysis quite compelling. Thus does commercial film-making turn propaganda into what passes as an art form.

As Batman, Christian Bale reprises his role as Bruce Wayne, the wealthy playboy who moonlights as “the caped crusader”, while Michael Caine continues to provide reams of unsolicited advice as his butler Alfred. Morgan Freeman also returns as Lucis Fox, the loyal employee of Wayne’s corporate empire who supplies his boss with the weaponry necessary for his increasingly dark deeds on behalf of Gotham’s citizenry. Presumably because she’s too busy being “Mrs. Tom Cruise”, Katie Holmes has been replaced by Maggie Gyllenhall as Wayne/Batman’s putative girlfriend Rachael Dawes and  Aaron Eckhart debuts as Harvey Dent, Gotham’s district attorney who’s determined to uproot the city’s embedded criminals and win the affections of Ms. Dawes. In the course of the film’s increasingly disjointed storyline, Wayne duels Dent for Rachael’s affection while both of them are forced to take on The Joker’s increasingly successful efforts to install himself as head of the city’s crime syndicate. None of this is even remotely original, nor are the performances, (Ledger excepted); what is new and disturbing is the degree to which the director suggests that valued ends, (civic peace and justice) justify whatever means are required to achieve them.

Give Dolan his due; he’s coaxed a brilliantly satanic performance from Ledger, a young heart-throb of an actor no one would have expected to be as repulsively compelling as his Joker turns out to be. And Nolan establishes a new standard of compellingly realistic sets and dazzling sequences of thunderously kinetic action for the genre- - there are compelling ingredients to be found here, but in service of a film-making ethic which observes, in salacious detail, the horrifying behavior of a repugnant character while piously sermonizing about the deplorable content of his actions. 

The verdict? Dolan turns his audience into voyeurs and then absolves them for their sins by insisting he’s simply fashioned a morality play spun from the most adolescent of sources. Don’t be fooled - - this one’s a slickly disingenuous use of your pocket money. 

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