Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Dark Knight - movie review

A darkness incandescent...

Don't sit around reading the reviews (or even this one). Get your butt out to the cinema, pay their pound of flesh and see the damned movie! Or let me put it like this: if you only see one movie this year, THE DARK KNIGHT has to be the one.

I saw the movie before I looked at the reviews, and for once the critics have got it right ... though, of the reviews I read last night, only the Rolling Stone critic picked up on the real fangs and claws of THE DARK KNIGHT.

It's a movie and a half. It's an acid trip. It's one of the very few films in a long, long time that will exercise your brain as well as your adrenal glands. Viewers and reviewers around the world are already touting Heath Ledger for an Oscar; and if he doesn't get one, I'll want to know why. Yes, he was that good.

Which is not to undermine the other performances in the movie. Gary Oldman is nothing short of fantastic as Jim Gordon, who has become the very personification of common decency and human integrity. His performance is so subtle, his character so 'un-glamorous' that Gordon takes on a haunting realism which makes him stand out at the very moment he is being surrounded by the macabre, the grotesque, the surreal. If Heath Ledger doesn't get the Oscar, Gary Oldman should get it: his performance as Gordon is of necessity crafted from the ordinary, the mundane, the tatters of rampant normality. By contrast, Ledger was handed the whole machine shop, with the welding bay fired up, and given an engraved invitation to let rip. Sure, the Joker thoroughly eclipses everyone and eveything else in the movie ... but look at what Heath has to work with. Gary Oldman's task must at times have looked like Everest: create a Jim Gordon who's middle aged, and thin, and tired, and scared ... and not for a moment swamped by the Joker or even the Batman himself.

The courage exhibited by Christian Bale in this movie is startling: he spends about 80% of his screen time masked, with only the glint of his eyes and the gravel-like hiss of the voice to express emotion. No critic has yet, to my knowledge, recognized the brilliance of this performace; and they might never comment on it, because they're uniformly (and understandably) dazzled by the Joker. Bale is an enormous talent in his own right. I first noticed him in REIGN OF FIRE, an Irish SF movie (which is almost anomalous; an Irish science fiction movie??), which came out in Aus in 2002. He was astonishingly poweful at 28. Six years later, he seems to be a case of nitro about to explode ... and in the third Batman movie, he might get the chance to do just that.

This time around, however, the prvilege of explosion was for Heath Ledger -- and thank gods he actually scored this opportunity; because it was to be his last. He did some wonderful work, beginning with the short-lived TV series, ROAR, when he was still a teen. In A KNIGHT'S TALE he was the classic pretty face, which was a good place to start. Hollywood loves a pretty face. Later, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN gave him the opportunity to show that he could act with the best of 'em, while THE BROTHERS GRIMM let him demonstrate that he wasn't bothered about glamor and good looks.

In THE DARK KNIGHT, the pretty face is so absent, you really can't see through the crust of old, smudged pancake makep to the man underneath. If you didn't know it was Heath Ledger, you'd never guess. He was as talented as Johnny Depp when it came to doing accents and voices: you can't hear Heath Ledger's own natural voice in any word the Joker says. The characterisation of the Joker is so complete, the actor never peeks out for a tenth of a second; and the Joker is all your nightmares rolled into one.

This is the guy who can, and does, take the Batman apart at the seams. And here's the rub: he doesn't do it with the muscles of the Hulk, the super-powers of the Wolverine, Tony Stark's flying armor, or the Terminator's firepower. He does it with words, and with perhaps the most ferocious intellect ever depicted in a movie.

He is fearsomely intelligent. Much more intelligent than Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, and the rest of Gotham's finest. It's just too bad he's also stark, raving mad. His insanity is incandescent, it lights up the darkness both of director Christopher Nolan's bleak view of the city, and of a region of the human psyche which has seldom been explored on film.

This is the first comic-book-movie which has, to my thinking, transcended the genre. THE DARK KNIGHT is not a comic. It's art. What characterises art? Is it vision, design, intellect, and the courage to be, say and do the extraordinary? In any analysis, the film slides itself neatly into the category of art.

Only once does it cross an imaginary line, and for a few minutes threaten to look and feel like a comic. Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart) is an extremely difficult character to portray. He works better on paper than in film; on paper, his grotesque appearance can be hinted, suggested. On film, there's no option but to get on and depict the nightmare face ... and by 2008, to do any kind of justice to the face, the depiction has to be grotesque indeed. Shades of Heavy Metal and 2000 AD. Here's the rub: moviegoers have been so bludgeoned by the grotesque, the horrific, that if the appearance of Two-Face were toned down, the character would no longer work. People would say, 'What's so bad about that? Deal with it.' We're so desensitized to horror and ugliness, it takes one hell of a lot to shock us in this area (just as we're so desensitized to movie violence that it's starting to turn into a joke ... showing with THE DARK KNIGHT was the trailer for Tropic Thunder. I rest my case.)

Aaron Eckhart is very good as Harvey Dent. He's very good as Two-Face, come to that ... even if Two-Face is the single facet of the movie where THE DARK KNIGHT passes back over the line from art to comic. Moreover, Christopher Nolan must have been keenly aware of this, because rather than keeping Two-Face alive at the end of the movie, he is thankfully laid to rest. The character of Harvey Dent is used as the motivation for Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon making the decisions that make all hell bust loose. Because of him -- his presence, what he stands for, what he's prepared to do -- they literally tear Gotham to bloody tatters between them, and all in the name of Good ...

And, enter the Joker at stage right. The rot has already set in by the time the Joker shows his smudged, scarred clown face. The city is already teetering, though it needs one more good shove to make sure it goes over.

Who the Joker is, we don't know. He has no name, no background, no story. Just the ferocious intellect of a genius, the soul of a psychopath, the mind of a madman, the face of a nightmare. These qualities come together to mold the guy who could, and did, break the Batman, without recourse to kevlar or titanium, or superbikes and indestructable cars.

His weapons are the words of the script by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, and this script should be registered as a weapon in its own right. It has an acid-eaten lethality, showcasing itself: You wanna know how to take down Batman? Not with guns. Not with high-tech. You do it with mind-games.

Heath Ledger's performance is off the scale; but remember, the Nolans wrote these words. The script is the scalpel with which the city, the society in which we live, and much of the human psyche itself, are peeled like an onion. Don't lose sight of the script, in the incandescent darkness of Ledger's and Bale's performances.

The film is rated, absurdly, PG-13. For myself, I'd have slapped an R rating on it. Not for the sex scenes (there aren't any), not for the nudity (there isn't any), nor fo the coarse language (there isn't any), or the on-screen violence (it's Hollywood violence, no one takes it seriously enough to stop six year olds watching Jurassic Park).

It's what happens just-offscreen, just out of our field of view ... it's the passion and joy the Joker takes in inflicting, and suffering, pain and destruction ... and, more than anything, it's the sheer, insane brilliance of his arguments in support of chaos, horror and death. The man makes a terrible logic. You see the sense his argument. Part of you agrees with him, though you shock yourself to the core by agreeing. With words, the Joker (read: Ledger, Nolan and Nolan) take that scalpel and they flay alive society, justice, civilization, humanity, morality, courage.

Would I want any teen of mine watching this? No way. They might actually be listening to the dialog! For 15 years, parents, teachers, priests, doctors, elder siblings, have been working to instill into this hypothetical kid a little grasp on what's right and wrong. Right? Give THE DARK KNIGHT exactly two hours and thirty-two minutes, and said kid won't know who's right, who's wrong, and who's a big, fat liar. The fact is, a lot of adults will be asking the same questions about now. (And here's the scary part: in a couple of years, some psycho, somewhere is going to be parroting back the Joker's insane brilliance to criminal psychiatrists, quoting his philosophy, his world view, as motivation, reason and absolution.)

The movie needs an R-rating, but our film censorship bureaus are so strangled by their own codes and ethics, they can't work it out. No nudity? No profanity? No bonking? No buckets of fake blood, and dismembered bodies? Okay, it's PG-13, right Dead wrong. THE DARK KNIGHT demonstrated with absolute acuity, that the most lethal weapons are not guns, knives and explosives. They're words.

That said, the film is supremely beautiful, on many levels, from the purely visual to the deeply emotional. Gary Oldman, Christian Bale and even Michael Caine (who is almost but not quite restricted to sarcastic wit) surpass themselves. Bale must overcome the costume itself: he doesn't even have benefit of his face and normal vocal range, with which to act. Gary Oldman is similarly impeded by Jim Gordon's mantle of incredible 'normalcy' -- middle-aged, plain, tired, frightened -- among a legion of the beautiful and young, and the macabre and grotesque.

Kudos to all who were involved with the movie, from the cinematography and scripting, to the effects and editing. THE DARK KNIGHT has a handful of flaws, which occurred to me at the time, while watching. But here's the mark of a great movie: I can't even remember what most of them were, now, and the two I do recall don't seem to matter. Great soundtrack music; effects and stunts par excellence; and an ending which will rock you.

Keegan's score: Five outta five, and an extra gold star for the courage to just do it.

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