Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Dark Knight - movie review

An enjoyable bit of entertainment. Worth seeing. A bit long. I was impressed with how chilling and forensic it was (more on that later) in comparison to the earlier films, and even Christian Bale's other performance in the role in Batman Begins. The direction was brisk and everyone seemed well-cast. What they did with Lt. Gordon was a surprise, and a very interesting choice.

The film gets by with a couple of "Hollywood" moments you just have to bat your eyes at such as the superfluous opening action sequence with the bit about vigilantism left unexplored; there was also a gun being snuck into court and the Joker's effortless dispatching of a mobster bodyguard (a magic trick, indeed). I only mention those because this film was trying so so hard to be realistic in that intimate-yet-simultaneously-obtuse way we have come to expect from reality-tv, COPS, and other current forensic-focused crime dramas.

There's been some debate about this film in comparison to the original 89 version. My answer to that echoes much others that are circulating - two different eras, two different films. In the late 80s Tim Burton's gothic/grotesque outlook on film was hot, he was the natural choice to direct, and that film has his distinct stamp in the way all his other films do. The leads were seasoned veterans of the screen, who brought great depth to the roles - the film effectively mixes loud and soft moments in the way the new films do not.

The sexual politics of the original left a bad taste in my mouth, something I wrote on before (maybe I'll re-post) but TDK did something with the female lead almost never done in mainstream movies. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Someone needed to cross that line at some point, but why here? The reasons are not compelling.

The other debate is Heath Ledger's performance in comparison to Jack Nicholson's.

While I haven't read the comics (and don't generally) my understanding of the character of the Joker was that it was some kind of theatrical stock character out of German Expressionism, that he was supposed to make you laugh and cringe at the same time, as in how can I the viewer find this funny when the guy is psycho? So the Joker JN played makes you uncomfortable on two levels, both visually and internally. TDK's Joker is simply a terrorist, and just inspires resentment. I found the "telling-you-my-plans" scenes quite tedious, even though they moved quickly. Recall the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - "when you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk!" But if talking in the interest of backstory is already minimized, all that's left for a director to do is have people shoot. And there's a lot of shooting in this movie.

Ledger went beyond the writer's demands and gave the performance of his life, something maybe lost to the overall production, but not to the audience. This is the kind of thing the young Michael Caine got famous for doing, and it's too bad we won't see any more films with Heath Ledger. However since the Joker of TDK is so one-dimensional in this regard, I have to give the edge to Nicholson for the more complex portrayal.

More on the one-dimensionality - this is perhaps the wrong term. It would be better to think of Heath Ledger's Joker as super-dimensional, since he seems to have a ubiquitous presence in nearly every scene, as if he's also getting around town in a million-dollar road coaster himself. No, its better than that, because with a bomb always previously-planted, with henchmen getting mowed down in one scene and somehow quickly replaced in the next, with a sheer command of whatever technology he's using to intimidate the multitude, this Joker takes on a transubstantiated, immanent quality of Evil not too unlike the Christian account of Satan himself.

But, the somewhat absurdist aspect of the 89 Joker paved the way for the more cartoonish villains to follow. So, Heath Ledger's Joker gets points for closing the door on the cartoons and tv series regalia once and for all, moving the villainy in a potentially more compatible direction, that is, compatible for the times we live in. In comparison, the 89 film does bask in its retro 40s production design a little too obviously (Axis Chemical?), so today it seems dated in more ways than one. I smile at that anyway, though, because I love the fashion of the era.

Where is the bat cave? We see instead a kind of bat-vault, chilling and dry like in the James Bond franchise, which possibly at this point the creators of the Batman films may be eyeing as cinematic competition. Why eye it - they already blew the competition away in opening weekend.

The film, like much entertainment of this decade, one could notice, wants to make the claim that criminal behavior needs no rational explanation for what it does, therefore don't bother looking for an explanation. Just kick their butts as soon as you possibly can. While it is true that some people 'just want to watch the world burn' as butler Alfred notes, there's still always a twisted logic behind what they do. Knowing this logic and motivation may not indeed help you in a fight, but some foreknowledge is better than none. Instead, the filmmakers substitute forensics for psychology, and although they do it with panache, question marks about motivations are merely snowed over with enough action and bullet-riddled minor characters to keep you distracted.

If we didn't have to know backhistory for the Joker, why did the filmmakers give it to us in the character of Two-Face? It could be so that they could set up the plot machinery that leads to the ending, which I found to be excellent, not just in tying up the loose ends of the film, but in suggesting a more satisfying 3rd installment to come.

But the film in the end is not about the Joker, or even Batman, its about ethical choices in life or death situations. It moves into provoking a discussion about what's involved in such decisions in a way that doesn't talk down to the audience. This alone makes the movie worth seeing.

What this film was missing were the bats! The bats are a mysterious, primal force that disturbed and motivated Bruce Wayne in both the 89 version and in Batman Begins. Instead, the Joker became that force in this film, flitting easily from one scene to the next, like a giant vampire bat, as if the batcave has become our entire waking world. No need to descend into a Borgesian cellar, the filmmakers seem to be claiming, when there is already plenty of horror right in front of us. With the world already bats, no need to look for a cave.

But, people get tattoos of primal forces, not robo-cops, which is often how Christian Bale's character comes across in this film. What bugs me is imagining that after watching this film, people who are a little emotionally disheveled may get a tattoo of the Joker instead. And, they may say 'well, its for Heath.." but then you'll wonder.


Skepoet said...

A very balanced commentary.

J. Heaven said...

thank you