Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: The Dark Knight

Riding ridiculous waves of hype, The Dark Knight was dubbed the greatest movie ever by nerds the world over and Oscar talk circled the late Heath Ledger for his take on the Joker, all for a film that nobody had actually seen yet. As such, now that The Dark Knight is actually out it's difficult to resist the urge to lash back at the hyperbole and lean on the film's many real flaws. Unsurprisingly, it's not perfect. It's too long and I left the theater largely dissatisfied.

But is it any good?

I'm one of the few who found series predecessor Batman Begins to be awkward and boring, an attempt to reinvent the series in a style that didn't exactly play to the source material's strengths. The film was so intent on taking itself seriously that it jettisoned the weirdness and color of a good Batman movie, and its few comic-booky moments felt like they were grafted in from an entirely different (and more playful) film. Not a bad film, exactly, but dull and disjointed.

Thankfully The Dark Knight is a massive step in the right direction on almost all fronts, in no small part due to the massive influx of color that his Heath Ledger's Joker. His comment that Gotham "needs a better class of criminal" holds true to the series as well, and his limping, lip-licking embodiment of chaos is the nerve center of the film. He isn't all that Joker, really--not prankish enough, and where's the twisted glee?--but just try to resist leaning forward in anticipation every time he appears on screen.

And yet part of the charm is his Joker is genuinely terrifying, a destructive nightmare of a villain. He isn't some likable antihero with plans to take over the world so much as an unhinged self-made terrorist. He's as repulsive as he is compelling, an uneasy wild card you wouldn't want in your backyard. He's not without a certain charisma, true, and he does draw laughs, but only of the most queasy and uncomfortable kind.

Ledger is a highlight, but the rest of the cast holds their own. Aaron Eckhart is great as Harvey Dent, all hard-nosed vulnerable bravado, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is the better Rachel Dawes in that unlike Katie Holmes she can actually act. Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Michael Caine all do their usual excellent work, despite being given some of the film's most awkward dialogue.

Yeah, about that: the script is largely rubbish, with far too many self-important monologues on being the hero the city needs or the nature of chaos and sixteen ways in which it can be presented. Even Ledger's seductive performance can't quite rescue some of the clunkers he's handed, all subtlety erased by the time he's done expounding on whatever the fuck. The film repeatedly swings for gravitas and utterly misses, hamstrung by ambition that frequently outstrips the writing.

And god is it too long, overstaying its welcome by at least a half hour. The last act is largely bungled, with Joker's arc unceremoniously dumped in favor of clumsily shoehorning in another villain. The offenses aren't on the level of Spider-man 3 but it's disheartening to see a film turn soggy and confused right when it should be soaring to a tidy conclusion.

Additionally, Nolan still can't quite nail the propulsive energy that defines truly infectious action sequences. Most of the big money scenes unfolded without cohesion and rhythm, getting enough right to squeak by but not exactly pulsing with infectious adrenaline. The climactic scene where Batman infiltrates a skyscraper with hostages, clowns, and a SWAT team (yes, you read that right) was passable, but I dare anyone to explain just what the hell was going on.

But in the end The Dark Knight is a success, an evil little mindfuck of a movie that settles in and refuses to leave. The movie is a study in chaos, with Ledger's Joker pushing the topic from lip service to vulgar display. There is a very real sense of society's safety net falling away, the situation spiraling out of control as the stakes keep escalating. Nolan's decision to de-sexify Gotham into a reskinned Chicago actually helps bring the chaos to a stage we can all relate to. We are the victims of the Joker, our friends and family nothing more than playthings for his violent whim. His reign of terror hits a little too close to home, which is why it just fucking gets under our skin.

The Dark Knight isn't a great movie by any stretch of the imagination. It certainly isn't film of the year material--hell, it wasn't even the best movie I saw this month. But it gets its hooks in you, growing spikes as it settles in. I left the theater largely glad it was over and yet I find myself increasingly thinking of chaos-ravaged Gotham and the depth of Ledger's madness. The Dark Knight wasn't up to the level of, say, Iron Man, and yet it struck a deep chord that only grows stronger over time.

I'm not exactly sure what to do with all this.

1 comment:

lrice648 said...

I pretty well agree with you on all counts, except it was in my case the best movie I've seen this month (as the only other one was hellboy 2 which was godawful).

A lot of the bad aspects you point out were noticable, but not really an issue for me. When compiling a list of the movies faults, they would perhaps be included, but they didn't immediately jar me from the movie.

I felt the length was its biggest issue, I don't recall exactly where it was in the movie, but there was a point where it just felt like a great place to end. Should it have ended there, I would have had a very clear impression of what had happened and it was, at that moment, a lot better movie than it was by the time it actually ended.

Its a shame to see a movie be so enjoyable at one point that just cant quite finish the job. The Boat scene also had a lot of potential but it was pretty hamfisted in its execution.