When I was in college I took a course on the history of crime films. One of the central points my professor made over and over again was that the appeal of crime and gangster movies relies on the collision of two human instincts: First, fascination with the depraved lawless underbelly of society; and, second, our nature to embrace unity and peace and authority. Thus, the best crime films live in a state of duality, even contradiction: We want to see chaos in criminals thriving but we also want to see order when the good guys win.
I think this is the core reason why The Dark Knight is such a potent piece of cinema. Beyond the overbearing grimness and great performances and the bone-crushing set pieces and the comic book pulpiness and myth-building (all of which are terrific and omnipresent), this movie has an obsession with duality. There are “two faces” to the basic Batman scenario — Bruce Wayne and the Caped Crusader. And there are “two faces” to this film in particular: hero vs. villain, cop vs. robber, corrupt vs. principled, life vs. death, unstoppable force vs. immovable object, etc. All are raised to operatic levels in The Dark Knight. That fundamental tug-of-war between competing poles, under the surface, is why vigilante justice, especially via fantastical superheroes, is such an enduringly appealing cinematic topic, and it’s never been better explored in a blockbuster than here by Christopher Nolan.
Nolan’s vision of Gotham City has evolved since Batman Begins, and mostly for the better. Gone is the sense that Nolan is trying to ape Tim Burton’s expressionistic vision of an urban nightmare. It didn’t quite fit with Nolan’s fascination with institutions gone sour; e.g. corrupt cops, greedy corporation board members, and organized criminals that operate like colluding businessmen. Instead, The Dark Knight’s Gotham feels like a slightly heightened version of a real decaying American city — specifically, Chicago. This new, more realistic look does wonders to amplify the sense that every twist, every jaw-dropping set piece, every bit of fire and destruction, is happening in the real world… is happening to us.
What people seem to best remember about The Dark Knight is Heath Ledger as The Joker, and it’s not hard to see why. Ledger brings to life a psychopathic criminal savant. It’s a performance of almost mythological proportions due, in part, to Ledger’s untimely death following the filming, as if he traded his soul for this Joker come to life. He makes every moment on screen count with so many little gestures and expressions and line readings that add up to something electrifying. You never doubt for a moment that this is the real and true Joker incarnate on celluloid.
But the movie really belongs to Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart. Dent’s rise and fall provide the narrative spine for the film and also its thematic crux – that society loves to see a hero rise and a hero fall in equal measure. Good and bad, dark and light, chaos and order, ever in balance. Eckhart is fine, though I really wish he had one extra gear of acting ability to elevate this central role. At least his CGI makeup as Two-Face remains unnerving and horrifying, almost a piece of body horror.
As vigorous as the movie is, its narrative and script swerve in and out of coherency. Plenty of stuff happens with little buildup or consequence, like Commissioner Gordon faking his own death. Some of the movie’s most famous lines are better at sounding profound then providing actual thematic or character insight. (“Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough; sometimes people deserve more; sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded” is one nut I’ve never cracked). Although, it’s still a bit more cogent than the climax of Batman Begins.
As with its predecessor, many of the best action scenes involve vehicles, from the opener with the tumbler Batmobile to a showstopper halfway through the movie when Batman catches Joker. These car chases always have a great the sense of danger and thrilling speed. The hand to hand combat scenes, on the other hand, remain quite problematic: Nolan films them too dark and jittery so that they’re tough to follow and, thus, even a little bit boring.
But this is not a movie designed to deliver a polished, flawless experience; it is, instead, a monumental and excessive creation whose sweep and power result in perhaps the greatest blockbuster of the 21st century to date.
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100