The Dark Knight

The city, Chicago standing in for Gotham, is besieged by mobsters. Not such a big surprise. No one in Gotham seems to have a relationship with living things. The city is a maze of concrete and steel. There’s not a patch of green park in sight, not a shrub, not a puppy, not even a real bat, much less a vase of peonies in billionaire Bruce Wayne’s penthouse apartment. Cut off from Mother Nature, it’s understandable that the metropolis has become rootless.

Enter the fiendish criminal, The Joker. His face plastered with white clown make-up, lipstick smeared into a leer, eyes blackened like skeleton sockets. He lunges like a zombie on uppers, slithering his viper tongue, spewing his toxic one-liners. No laughing matter, this insane screwball. He ratchets sadism up to a new level–how this movie got a PG-13 rating instead of an R is totally beyond me. The Joker isn’t motivated by greed or power. His goal in life is to create chaos. He “just likes to watch the world burn.”

A film is only as good as its villain. By that standard, The Dark Knight achieves true greatness. In his last film role, Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain, Casanova, The Patriot) is so repulsively psychotic that he makes Hannibal Lecter look downright cuddly. Ironically, when The Joker is on screen, he radiates so much vitality that his presence permeates the film. Wisely, Director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Prestige) gave Ledger plenty of screen time–and full rein. The result is the more we know about The Joker, the more we want to know. Our curiosity feeds his evil like a vacuum sucks air.

All the performances in The Dark Knight are top-notch. Christian Bale continues to be the perfect Batman he began in Batman Begins–intelligent, savvy, suave, just a tiny hint of self-satire. Now Bruce Wayne has to deal with wrenching ethical questions–in his war against evil, has he become evil himself? Michael Caine (The Prestige) as Batman’s loyal butler Alfred maintains his role as the verbalizer of moral issues. Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, Gone Baby Gone) carries on as the head of Wayne Industries R&D and the creator of Batman’s high tech weaponry. Gary Oldman (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) returns as good cop Lt. James Gordon. New to the story is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, Thank You for Smoking), the crime busting D.A. whose visibility makes him Gotham’s “white knight,” contrasted with Batman’s mysterious “dark knight.” With his blonde Dudley Do-Right good looks and solid earnestness, Eckhart turns in a bravura performance that makes you ache when the predictions he’s made about himself come true.

The Dark Knight is so male-centric you wouldn’t be too far off the mark to blame most of the problems the guys in this movie have on the simple fact that they keep sleeping by themselves. Oh yes, there’s a long-suffering wife and a brave judge and a female cop or two, but these characters are just toss-aways. The only important female character is Rachel Dawes, Batman’s former squeeze who is now in love with Harvey Dent. Rachel is the most real character in the film and Maggie Gyllenhall (Stranger Than Fiction) gives the part an earthy maturity that the other characters lack. Alas, the story cuts off her chances to effect any real change in Gotham.

The Dark Knight is not a perfect movie. It doesn’t always match its reach, and there are so many plot holes, I’m still scratching my head over a half dozen scenes that literally left the audience hanging. Even so, The Dark Knight is a terrific film, awesome and compelling, occasionally magnificent, and its images will haunt you, for good or ill, for long afterwards. The photography by Oscar winner and long-time Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister is stupdendous, shot mostly on 65mm to give the film not only its broad scope but to capture those nighttime details that most films have left unrevealed. The stunts are real life and utterly spectacular, making CGI sequences in other films noticeably phony by comparison.

There is one oddly hopeful scene that features ordinary people rather than the movie’s heavyweights. The Joker has rigged two ferries with bombs, and timed it so that the passengers on each must decide to kill everyone on the other ferry, or wait to be killed themselves. The minutes tick by in agony as the people try to decide. The Joker is hopping with gleeful anticipation of the bloody mayhem. Then in their own way, each group makes a surprise decision–and they all live. The Joker gripes, “Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” Indeed.

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