A good film critic, a really good film critic, is a film critic that you can trust to be the film critic you need and not just the film critic you want.
It would be easy, quite easy, to get swept up in the media masses who are desperately pining for "The Dark Knight," Heath Ledger's cinematic swan song and Christopher Nolan's second "Batman" film, to be a slice of cinematic paradise worthy of all the pre-opening Oscar surrounding Ledger's turn as The Joker.
The good news is that the awards hype is warranted...Heath Ledger doesn't so much burst from Jack Nicholson's shadow as he simply and beautifully and maniacally reinvents The Joker as a psychologically tortured criminal that is society's most dangerous type of criminal...the type of criminal who makes you compromise your own values in order to even have a hope of catching him.
Ledger's performance is a little bit prancing and preening, a whole lot menacing and taunting. Ledger would have undoubtedly cast himself into the Hollywood stratosphere with this performance, especially coming on the heels of such diverse work as "Brokeback Mountain," "Casanova" and "I'm Not There." The simple fact that Ledger can, unbelievably, make you forget his tragic death with this performance is even more haunting as you leave the theatre and reflect on the performance.
In other words, an Oscar nomination is a given. An Oscar award, while a bit more of a stretch, is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
Yes, Ledger really is that good in "The Dark Knight."
Indeed, Nolan's second visit to Gotham is as intense, exhilarating and intelligent as his first with "Batman Begins." "The Dark Knight" is even more relentless in the psychological warfare that is unleashed before your very eyes.
Nolan's "The Dark Knight" isn't the fantasy world of so many superhero flicks, rather it is a startlingly realistic and uncomfortably authentic Gotham that sets Batman (Christian Bale), The Joker, Gordon (Gary Oldman, Scarecrow Cillian Murphy) and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in OUR world.
This is a Gotham that could just as easily be a Chicago (where much of it was filmed), New York, Los Angeles or Indianapolis. Nolan's Gotham is a world not unlike our own, a world in which the righteous and the evildoer are easily confused and, ultimately, all are disposable. It is a world that requires a superhero that transcends it all to become the superhero that is needed not just wanted. It is a world that needs not just a "white knight," the label given the new do-gooder District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), but a dark knight willing to do whatever it takes to save the community.
It would be a foolish and critical mistake to fault Nolan for this dark vision. With "The Dark Knight," Nolan does not always make the popular decision nor the comfortable decision. Instead, indeed, Nolan becomes the filmmaker "The Dark Knight" needs him to be by avoiding a reliance on the romantic conflicts of "Super-Man" and the more audience-friendly lightness of the recent "Iron Man." "The Dark Knight" is intense, morbid, uncomfortable and exhausting. It is as much an action film as it is a superhero film, if not even moreso. It doesn't aim to please, it aims to envelope the senses and even one's sense of being.
"The Dark Knight" succeeds.
From the opening moments of a perfectly choreographed bank robbery, Nolan makes it completely apparent that "The Dark Knight," especially in its preferred IMAX format, is going to plop right down in our laps and rattle every cell of our bodies until we're pleading for a mercy that never arrives until the closing credits.
Christian Bale feels even more comfortable as the caped crusader, with a performance that is even more focused and precise than his turn in "Batman Begins." As chiseled as his abs, Bale turns Batman and Bruce Wayne into characters disturb because they leave you thinking that you really ought to be a better human being yourself. While I'm still not sold on the digitally manipulated vocals for Batman, Bale's presence is as maniacal as Ledger's without ever giving into The Joker's chaos.
The film's supporting players are uniformly strong, most notably Aaron Eckhart's quieter yet equally career-transcending turn as Dent, who experiences an unexpected tragedy that transforms him into his already assigned nickname of Harvey Two-Face. It was Eckhart's casting that, for some reason, made the least sense to me and the early trailer's hadn't put me at ease. Yet, within the first few minutes of "The Dark Knight," Eckhart removes all doubts with a performance that is moving and scary and frighteningly real.
Both of Batman's confidante's return, Pennyworth (Michael Caine) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Pennyworth harbors a secret that could potentially change everything, while Lucius becomes Batman's conscience when even he becomes ever so slightly consumed by the power he possesses. Both actors bring their A-game to the proceedings, turning what many films would project as minor characters into essential players.
Gary Oldman, as well, deliciously underplays Gordon and proves a nice contrast to the chaos that surrounds him and, perhaps most notably, Nolan corrects the miscasting of Katie Holmes in "Batman Begins" by adding the weightier Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes, the woman who is in the midst Dent and Wayne and Batman.
Co-written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, "The Dark Knight" often seems to be as chaotic as the world in which The Joker lives. The script infuses The Joker with the film's greatest lines, lines such as "What doesn't kill you makes you stranger" and a well-placed, cinematic flashback will haunt you long after the closing credits. Yet, the script is far greater than the sum of its parts with little bits and pieces that will permeate your brain even moreso after you leave, as an effective script should.
As all-enveloping as "The Dark Knight" is, it is not without its flaws and, depending upon your cinematic preferences, these flaws may impact your view of the film even moreso than it did mine.
As beautifully choreographed as was the opening bank robbery, there are at least a couple of occasions where Nolan struggles to make sense of action sequences that are NOT choreographed with any sense of style or purpose or clarity. It feels unintentional and, fortunately, Nolan keeps the proceedings moving so quickly that it's easy to be so swept up in the action that one barely notices.
Still, I noticed.
Similarly, on occasion, the special effects seemed a tad run-of-the-mill. Most notably, an extended sequence involving a city-wide sonar device felt like it was more out of "Wargames" than Gotham and lacked the rest of the film's exhilarating sense of awesomeness.
"The Dark Knight," while certainly not a graphic film in terms of violence, is nonetheless a graphic film in terms of its psychological warfare. Ledger's The Joker means business and, coupled with Nolan's relentless intentionality, "The Dark Knight" may not be a film for smaller children unable to fully process this darker, morbid Gotham.
There are moments, quite a few moments, in "The Dark Knight" that transcend anything you've seen in any other superhero film. It is a feral beast of a film that will impact you like it impacted me, waking me up at 4am to write a review of a film I simply cannot stop thinking about for even a moment.
Brooding, captivating, unforgettable and awesome, "The Dark Knight" isn't always the film you want it to be...instead, Nolan compels us into a world that is equal parts fantasy and disturbing reality. "The Dark Knight" is the film we need it to be.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic