Tuesday, July 22, 2008

THE DARK KNIGHT - The Emperor's New Clothes

You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villainThis review is replete with spoilers.

THE DARK KNIGHT opens with a suitably moody image of the Batman icon but soon cuts to a very modern, bright picture of the top of a skyscraper in a contemporary US city. It's as though Nolan wants to separate himself completely from Burton's urban gothic. Or maybe he just wants to show that a year after BATMAN BEGINS, Gotham has been cleaned up. So instead of the beautifully designed grunge, overland metros and grafitti of BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT looks like a sleek thriller. Indeed, the opening bank heist reminded me of INSIDE MAN more than BEGINS or the Burton movies. It was all very anonymous and rather disappointing.

Half an hour into the movie we get our first scene of The Joker having fun with emasculated Gotham mafiosi. Heath Ledger is captivating: a scene with a pencil is shockingly funny. Finally, I feel like I'm being entertained. I even overlook all his precious lip-smacking.

We then wander around for another twenty minutes. The familiar characters are introduced. Michael Caine and Lucius Fox are wise-cracking and wise respectively as Alfred and Lucius Fox. There's a lot of time-wasting in Hong Kong and some really rather nasty off-hand comments about buying American rather than Chinese. I really don't like the inference. Batman forcefully extradites a mafiosi money-launderer from Hong Kong and dumps him at the gate of Lieutenant Gordon. Gary Oldman - now there's a subtle performance! If anyone deserves praise it's Oldman. Just look at the flicker of a cheeky smile as he appraises Batman's gift. Later, look at him plead for the lives of his loved ones. Now there's real emotion. Contrast it with Maggie Gyllenhaal (an actress I have much respect for.) She never convinces as a lawyer or as a woman torn between two men. She has no chemistry with Aaron Eckhart's clean-cut crusading DA, Harvey Dent. She's even less convincing in her scenes with Bruce Wayne. Watch her tell him she'll be there for him. Could she be more non-chalant? She plays it like she's trying to remember where she put her keys.

Fifty minutes in and The Joker's back on the scene with a truly frightening window scene. We're back to the excitement. He's an anarchist and he wants us to play his game. He even teases us with shifting versions of his origins story. (A little rich from a director who just spent a whole film giving us Batman's!) Note that in my humble opinion you could have cut into this film at minute forty-five and not have missed a thing.

Then we're on again with all the crime-thriller shenanigans. Gordon and the Batman want to bring down the mafia via its money launderer so they take their eyes off The Joker. Bruce Wayne goes all CSI. Blah blah blah. The director attempts to pull the rug from underneath the audience a couple of times. We all figure out what's going on immediately. Like they'd let Gordon die. Of course, once we know he didn't die we know Rachel really has died. They couldn't pull it off twice. Let's stop dancing round each other and get to the action!

One hour and thirty minutes into this film we finally get a proper showdown with the only truly spectacular action sequence involving a truck flipping over.

One hour and forty five minutes into this film and we reach a natural end. It's truly brilliant. Dark, unresolved, nihilistic, The Joker's head out of the car window, laughing at us all. This is like THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK only meaner.

Then we get another interminable forty-five minutes in which we basically get the origin story of Twoface, and a terribly rushed unwinding of his story. By this point, I'm fidgeting in my seat. I'm frustrated because Two-face's story should be more interesting than The Joker or BATMAN. After all, THE JOKER is an anarchist. There's no character development. Batman starts off conflicted and ends conflicted. He gets precious little screen time and he's just not that interesting here. But Harvey Dent could've been played like the fall of Michael Corleone. Except, Nolan shoe-horns his character arc into an unwanted epilogue rather than making it the strong start to the next movie. I esepcially disliked Two-face's make-up. The whole point about Batman is that the characters are normal people who are mentally disturbed. So Batman is just a man in a suit. The Joker is just a man with freakish scars and make-up. But Two-face looks so deformed he breaks through my willing suspension of disbelief. Less would've been more.

And, finally, what's with the crude attempt to get into the politics of The Patriot Act and the Ethics 101 practical philosophy class? The conversation between Batman and Lucius Fox about the ethics of wire-tapping to catch a terrorist is ham-fisted. It's as though Nolan is desperately trying to be political and of his time. But these sorts of political allegories are important and require a more profound treatment than a tacked on five minute scene.

Similarly, the philosophical dilemma with the two boats struck me as ridiculous. One boat is full of convicts: the other is full of ordinary citizens. Each boat has five minutes to blow the other one up or they both blow up. Nolan decides to have both the criminals and the citizens act with superlative integrity, despite a bit of whining from some of the people. How unrealistic is that? More to the point, it's completely out of keeping with the dark, subversive tone that he's trying to go for with the rest of the film. In fact, it's pure sentimental schmaltz. The Joker comes to spread anarchy and fear. But we good citizens won't play dice because, at heart, we love our fellow man. Please. The whole point of this film is that "with a few sticks of dynamite" The Joker can turn the most moral man in Gotham, Harvey Dent, into a pychopathic killer. Come on Nolan: make up your mind.

THE DARK KNIGHT isn't a terrible film but it is flawed. I didn't enjoy it except in brief flashes. It's overlong, and yet feels rushed. It has a brilliant cast, and yet feels poorly-acted. It's a comic book film but it films like a cliched movie thriller. Yes, Ledger is one of the highlights, but I've seen better performances this year. Indeed, I've seen arguably better performances in this film, not least that of Gary Oldman.

So, in the immortal words of PUBLIC ENEMY, Don't Believe The Hype.

THE DARK KNIGHT opened in Iceland, Argentina, Australia, Greece, Taiwan, Brazil, the US and Venezuela on the weekend of July 18th. It opens in Egypt, Italy, Nroway, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Turkey and the UK the weekend of July 25th. It opens in August in Belgiu,, Japan, France, Spain and Germany and opens in Russia on September 11th.


  1. Finally, someone who got how muddled the movie is. Great review.