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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

(Late) REVIEW - "The Dark Knight" (2008) (Extended Spoiler Version)

As I write this review the effects of “The Dark Knight” have already spread across the globe. It is the second highest grossing film in the domestic box office and it has nearly hit $1 billion worldwide. It’s been highly acclaimed by general audiences, Bat-fans and critics alike. As its anticipated DVD release looms, Warner Brothers is piling on the big guns to promote the film for a best picture nomination and a supporting actor nod for Heath Ledger.

“The Dark Knight” is clearly no small success, but does it live up to the hype? Is it really that good? A simple “yes” isn’t quite the justice the film deserves on its own. I don’t normally write spoiler reviews, and I will edit this review and create a “spoiler-free” version for those who like me to keep it that way. But at this point it’s highly unlikely you haven’t seen the movie. And to talk about it without covering the more revealing elements of the film is like talking about the essence of Tyler Durden without spoiling “Fight Club.” Anyone want to take a stab at that?

The movie begins with the now epic bank robbery scene where The Joker (Heath Ledger) tricks his men to kill each other so he doesn’t have to share the loot. Following the film’s stunning introduction is the closure of Scarecrow from the previous flick. This a very interesting piece in the movie because over a year has passed and we see Batman (Christian Bale) has yet to capture Dr. Crane. Furthermore, we see the introduction of the “copycat” batmen who feel they can do Batman’s job by blazing firearms at the Scarecrow and the people he’s dealing drugs with. Batman quickly puts a stop to both sides, relieved he’s finally caught Scarcrow and rather annoyed at the appearance of the copycats.

Indeed things have changed in Gotham since the audience left “Batman Begins.” The Falcone family now has a new boss, Salvatore Maroni, criminals scurry the streets in fear, and Gotham has a “White Knight” in the form of district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Determined to clean up the town and do away with Maroni’s crime spree, Bruce Wayne sees Dent as his out—As the man who can take up his mantle and save the city properly.

Escalation is a huge theme in this movie however, and despite Batman’s efforts and hopes of stopping Maroni with Dent and Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), The Joker is on the rise. “He’s just one man,” Batman underestimates, “he can wait.” The fantastic thing about Heath Ledger’s Joker is that he, like Batman, is a character written as a symbol. He has nothing to lose and therefore cannot be battered in to fear or contempt. He is perhaps film’s greatest on screen attempt at a pure anarchist. He has no rules. No attachments. No ambitions. He is Batman’s exact opposite.

With still high hopes of Dent taking over his job and spending the rest of his mangled life with Rachel Dawes, (Maggie Gyllanhaal) Bruce Wayne continues to fight fire with fire against a man bent on torturing the souls of an entire city. Ledger plays a character who seems to borderline both sense and madness in pursuit of showing us how horrifying the battle against nihilism really is.

I suppose we could say the same of Batman considering he looks like a giant bat who runs over police cars with a jet powered tank. I found it very interesting that this movie had more to do with Batman’s character rather than Bruce Wayne. “… I am convinced you will always need Batman.” Rachel writes to Bruce. How very true to the character. In this film we see the power of Batman tested. In one of, if not the, very best scenes in the movie, Batman faces off with The Joker in an interrogation room. It starts innocently enough—Batman is as still as a stone. His eyes could stare a hole through The Joker. But his gazing control is tested as The Joker reveals his true character: Battling Batman is fun! Why should he take down a whole city without a little confrontation after all?

The interrogation scene ends in mayhem, however; The Joker’s antics prove successful as Batman crosses the line and beats him mercilessly. This is character acting at its finest. You have Heath Ledger, decked out in the most grotesque make-up, giving a performance so eerie that it begs for years of constant dissection. Then you have Christian Bale, a man who is able to transcend the fact he’s wearing a bat-suit and utilize his physical acting and monstrous voice to show a fear Batman knows all too well: The fear of loss.

In one of the films most intense sequences revolving around The Joker’s escape, and the rescue of Harvey Dent, Batman’s hope of becoming Bruce Wayne again dwindles with the death of Rachel. Yet Batman isn’t the only one affected…

I’m going to take a quick detour and praise the advent of Harvey Dent. Aaron Eckhart, a fantastic actor that has only shown the most devoted talent in each of his films, plays one of the most tragic characters I’ve seen in a comic book/superhero film. His character represents the light of Gotham City. He is the hope of not only the people, but of Batman as well. It’s interesting watching this side of him as opposed to his more popular alter ego, Two-Face. Throughout most of the movie Eckhart’s hopeful performance leads the audience on to believe he can succeed. However, when the love of his life, Rachel, bites the dust, The Joker makes an appeal to his… “uglier side.” Thus is the fall of the “White Knight.” The fall of hope.

The metaphoric and physical mayhem that plays in the lives of these characters is further emphasized by the film’s visuals. I don’t simply mean the special effects that incorporate a much-applauded lack of CGI and heavy use of practical effects. No, I mean the talent director Christopher Nolan displays with his shots. Skylines have never looked so majestic as Batman swoops around or stands atop them as the fading sunlight illuminates the dim sky. The cleaner look of Gotham is a testament to Batman and Dent’s work over the year—And it makes it all the more stunning to watch The Joker burn it down.

For this sequel Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan’s brother, took a stab at the script. The two had worked together on “The Prestige” and “Memento,” a movie I can only proclaim as one of the very best of the last two decades. Nolan’s brother creates lines that run like poetry. Rather than having a high stock of action-cliché one liners, “The Dark Knight” is quotable simply because the lines mean something. While the line “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” is obviously a reference to Harvey Dent’s fate, no one could have guessed what it meant for the movie’s hero.

In a twist of events, that leaves Batman alone in the world, Harvey Dent dies after murdering five people. He allowed anarchy in his life at the flip of a coin and traded his favored justice system for chance. Some fans have complained that the death of Two-Face was a waste, but I disagree. He set out to take revenge for himself and his character came full circle by hitting rock bottom. Furthermore, without his death, a very powerful moment in the film could not be realized: The intervention of Batman’s selflessness.

After quoting Jonathan Nolan’s famous “die a hero” line, Batman takes the mantle of blame from Dent and runs. Wanting to help him, Gordon can do nothing but watch as Batman is chased down. This is not simply the sight of a single man taking the sins of another—This is a man selling his life away so that a city of people can continue to have hope. Converting himself into some Christ-like figure, Batman now has nothing. Rachel is gone. Dent cannot take his mantle from him. He cannot even reveal himself to the city because Gotham needs time to heal; after all, the escalation needs to end. This leaves Bruce a lone, trouble man. A person who can’t maintain his much needed alter ego and no longer has a future. He has sacrificed everything in his life, even those he’s cared for, to save the people of Gotham City.

It’s almost tear jerking watching such an absorbent amount of selflessness displayed on screen. Any real man probably wouldn’t be able to take it. On the other hand, in reality, the criminals on the ferry would have blown the other one sky high. But do we want to believe that? Is it scary to think that the bleak world displayed in “The Dark Knight” is better off than ours?

In a time where the economy is hurting people, war is rampant and uncertainty runs amok, Nolan’s film introduces a faint spark of hope. “The Dark Knight” has faith that people are, in fact, good. Hope can do amazing things, but at what cost?

It amazes me that a film like “The Dark Knight” turned out as well as it is. In some sense this the movie I’ve been waiting for my whole life. I’ve always been a Batman fan, but I also enjoy fun movies too. Why is it that summer blockbusters are always considered “good-for-the-summer,” but have no chance against the high-class, “artsy” movies that invade the autumn? Is it possible for a summer blockbuster, a movie based on a comic book no less, to step up with Oscar ranks? I’ve wanted to think so, and I think “The Dark Knight” has done just that. It is a powerful and engrossing crime thriller that should be hailed next to “The Departed,” “Heat” and… Dare I say it? “Chinatown?”

It isn’t that “The Dark Knight” is a flawless movie, or the best movie ever made. People will continue to nit-pick due to its popularity no doubt, but that’s all too easy with any film. It doesn’t negate the fact that Nolan’s most mature film to date bears an unmistakably strong message of hope. Strong characters, messages, cinematography and writing abound this movie that I believe may be the best film of 2008. It’s at the very least cinema’s finest comic book-based film. And if Nolan’s Batman story ends there, it couldn’t have left on a better note.

**** out of ****