[2008-07-24] The Dark Knight is freaking awesome

Somewhere around the middle of this movie, I found myself happier to be sitting in a movie theater than I'd been in a very long time. The film, which is brutally dark, was an absolute joy to watch, because, I think, of its astounding quality both as entertainment and as art. It's really, really, really good. That's not so complicated, is it? But I feel compelled to write about it, because of how exciting the experience was for me, and I don't just mean in the vicarious action-movie sense; I mean the more profound aesthetic excitement that comes from witnessing a performance of great virtuosity from an ensemble of brilliantly talented artists. The "joy of the symphony," one might call it.

And if The Dark Knight is a symphony, then Heath Leger is the star soloist. After he died, amid reports that playing this Joker had somehow undermined him psychologically, Jack Nicholson supposedly came out with a statement saying that the role had bothered him, too, in some way that an actor shouldn't be bothered by a role. Nicholson was respectable as the Joker in the original Batman, but to put his performance on the same shelf at the video store with Leger's in The Dark Knight is not really fair to either actor. Maybe it's silly Hollywood gossip to say that Leger gave his life for this role, but it's easy, on seeing the finished product, to imagine how that might well be the cost of bringing such villainy to life. There's dark magic about Leger's Joker, and when he confides in hushed tones to the newly-born Two-Face, lying in Harvey Dent's hospital bed, that he is "an agent of Chaos," well...we believe him. He's not a man, he's a primal force, a dark avatar of the Trickster God, and it comes as no surprise when we discover that, like John Doe in Se7en, he is without identity in the human world. As he must be. After all, how could we really imagine this creature having been born of a human mother, or having had a childhood, or ever having fallen in love? No: Surely he sprung full-grown from the forehead of something completely unnameable, something it would be better not to spend too much time thinking about.

And this apocalyptic performance would have eclipsed a lesser cast. But each of The Dark Knight's stars manages to shine, however briefly, in his or her own way. After Leger surely one must name Aaron Eckhart, who is entirely believable both as tough, idealistic Harvey Dent and as bitter, broken Two-Face, whose demise at the film's conclusion seems to come much too soon. And considering Heath Leger's tragic death, it is hard to resist concluding that the franchise has killed the wrong villain. Leger's Joker is irreprisable, now, sadly, in more ways than one, but Eckhart's Two-Face is a character begging for development, and frankly I would not be too surprised or upset to find him pulling a back-from-the-grave stunt when a sequel eventually appears.

After Eckhart I would acknowledge Michael Cain, who is even more endearing as Alfred than in his first appearance in Batman Begins, if such is possible. Alfred, as one of the only living human beings who knows the whole Bruce Wayne and can relate to him as such, has always been more than "just a butler," but in this film we begin to see how Bruce can say to him, only half-jokingly, "Accomplice? I'm going to tell them the whole thing was your idea." The point is subtle but well-made: Alfred is as big a part of Batman as Bruce is, and entirely indispensable to the enterprise. His speeches about the bandit he once hunted in Burma evoke a wonderfully anachronistic image of Alfred as a kind of tragic Imperialist, something like the young George Orwell in his essay "Shooting an Elephant," and when he admits that he only stopped the bandit in question, ultimately, by burning down a forest, he is somehow quintessentially British: We can't go around burning down forests today, of course, and we probably shouldn't have, then. But we did get the job done, didn't we?

To all of which Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon seems a perfect and quintessentially American counterpoint. The role is intense and understated, and a testament to Oldman's skill as an actor. Gordon as Oldman portrays him may be the film's only true hero: A normal man, without extraordinary wealth, tools, or abilities, who has seen the worst people have to offer and still loves them anyway, who's ready to die at a moment's notice to save a life, who is constantly taxed to his limits and beyond, and who never gives up anyway. His apparent death early in the story comes as a real shock, and his triumphant return is absolutely glorious: "We got you, you son of a bitch." Even if, as it turns out, the Joker wanted to be caught, it's hard not to want to cheer as Gordon chalks one up for the little guy.

Christian Bale is great as the big man himself, and Morgan Freeman is as charming as ever as Lucius Fox, the Man-at-Arms to Batman's He-Man. Neither role, however, is as interesting as those of the villains and supporting cast mentioned above. Bale, for his part, mostly just has to look and sound tough and stay out of the way of the actors playing the more demanding roles, but then they always say it's harder to play the straight man. For my money, he's note-perfect in the part, right down to the little corny edge of gravel in his Batman-voice (I think its a deliberate exaggeration on Bale's part). And Morgan Freeman, of course, just has to be Morgan Freeman and everybody loves him. His moral objections to the God's-eye-view cell phone sonar array the Batman cooks up seem kind of forced to me (I mean, if you really are concerned about Batman abusing his power, you probably shouldn't be building him unstoppable killing machines in the first place, no?), but it's a relatively small detail and not too hard to overlook.

No film is entirely perfect, of course, and there were a couple of other minor technical things that annoyed me in The Dark Knight. The first and foremost of these, unfortunately, occurs in the film's first few seconds, during the opening bank robbery. One of the robbers hands a bank hostage a fragmentation grenade and pulls the pin, the implication being that any sensible person would be afraid to do anything at all with his or her hands except hold onto the spoon to make sure the grenade does not go off. My own sensibility may be legitimately questioned, but I think if it were me, and an armed bank robber handed me a live grenade, pulled the pin, and then walked away, I would throw the damn thing at him and dive for cover, then run for the door as soon as it blew. Maybe it's just me, but handing over live grenades to people you want helpless seems like an A-number-1 bad idea.

Secondly, I question the verisimilitude of the behavior of the ferry passengers during the "Prisoner's Dilemna" scene. My own belief is that whoever found him or herself holding the detonator when it was discovered they were in a kill-or-be-killed scenario would immediately push the button, foregoing all delay and discussion. There's no doubt whatsoever that he or she would be entirely justified, at least from a legal point of view, in doing so, as the common law standard of innocence in such situations is old and venerable. Moreover, my own moral instinct is that the person who finds him or herself with that power is obliged to use it, immediately, and thereby save not only the lives of all his shipmates but their consciences as well. Any delay whatsoever is inexcusable, in my opinion: You owe it to the people around you to do your damnedest to make sure that it's not them who ends up dead. This duty is even more clearly defined if a crewmember, who has by his or her position assumed an additional responsibility for the lives of his or passengers, is the one who finds him or herself facing that choice. Such was the case in the film, and it seemed very implausible to me that the situation dragged on as long as it did.

Having said that, I'm obliged to add that the resolution to the dilemna, in which the giant, terrifying, apparently hardened convict compels the warden to hand over the detonator (so he can "do what you shoulda done a long time ago") and then tosses it out the window, is an absolutely brilliant bit of Whedonesque expectation-subversion. All of our assumptions are turned against us in that moment, and we, as an audience, are actually ashamed at our surprise. It's hard to pull a trick like that off successfully, but The Dark Knight does it beautifully. Like so many other things. Do yourself a favor and go see it now.

last modified 2008-07-24