Director: Christopher Nolan
Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman
The essence of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is pretty much contained in an exchange of dialogue between two random characters.
Two men sit in a bar while everyone else in the city is consumed by fear. One of them asks “shouldn’t you be out there doing something?”, the other remains seated and replies “today’s my day off”.
The new entry in the Batman saga, might as well have been called “On the Gotham Waterfront” because like, and maybe not as deep since, the 1954 film it explores what makes a singular person stand up against a decaying world of corruption.
As a group of mobsters flood Gotham City with crime, three men unite to bring an end to the mob; Lieutenant James Gordon (Oldman) who seems to be the only incorruptible police member, new District Attorney Howard Dent (Eckhart) who has become a guiding light of hope in the arena of politics and billionaire Bruce Wayne (Bale) as the Batman, the masked vigilante who Gotham fears, hates and loves.
After a couple of big hits against organized crime, the mafia bosses receive a business proposition from a bizarre psychopath who calls himself the Joker (Ledger): for half their money, he will kill Batman for them.
Once they understand the scope of the Joker’s evil, they, ironically, take him seriously, accept his plan and stand back as the villain unleashes complete hell on the city.
The finale of “Batman Begins” was a thing of rare beauty; as a single card announced the arrival of a villain for the next chapter and the film somehow assumed that the audience would be back for more.
Turns out that this overpowering mix of excitement and arrogance was built upon steady grounds, because “The Dark Knight” not only fulfills the promise set by its predecessor, it raises the bar to a completely different level which films, not merely the ones inspired by comic books, rarely touch.
Nolan’s hyper realistic vision, gets under your skin and creates constant threat and fear, making this the most political film released so far this year as it deals with terrorism, impending cataclysms and seeping corruption without moralizing and going to absolutely dark places without becoming hopeless.
The Joker is Nolan’s biggest ally in this, because as a self professed lover of chaos he is as unpredictable and destructive as a force of nature.
Ledger’s performance is one of pure maniacal evil; wearing makeup he seems to have extracted from the ashes and blood of the dead, he moves like a sneaky creature. His scars are terrifying because you never learn where they come from (he delivers a different backstory to whoever he’s interested in destroying next) and whenever he’s not onscreen you fear what he will do next.
The whole film serves itself from this impending sense of doom, but Nolan is a master at keeping this feeling on various levels.
His idea of chaos doesn’t come only as obvious explosions and evident acts of terrorism (dealt with in thrilling and elaborated action sequences, where Wally Pfister’s cinematography shines and which the movie has plenty of), but the worst kind which grows inside all of his characters making them question the nature of good and evil.
Eckhart’s Dent begins as an idealistic politician, aided by his looks (which make him feel like Gary Cooper in a Capra film) and his defiant spirit, the actor brings a sense of optimistic sadness to Harvey, with Eckhart you feel the struggles he had to face to get where he’s at.
Those familiar with the Batman story (and sometimes the script becomes a bit predictable based on this need to satisfy its comic book roots) know that Dent will turn out for the worst and those that don’t, still will feel that he is too good to be true and will expect him to fulfill their need to be right and show his dark side.
Proving that Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s screenplay has a point when it tackles people’s shaky view of moral grounds.
When you take into consideration that Dent and Wayne both are in love with the same woman (played by Gyllenhaal, more luminous than ever) and that fate plays a big deal in their lives, you realize that Dent is the real tragic figure of the story. He is the one the gods choose to play with.
In an ensemble that works wonders, Freeman as Lucius Fox and Caine as faithful butler Alfred, go beyond bringing the joy of their mere presences and deliver their lines with enough class to avoid being tagged as comedic relief.
Oldman’s Gordon anchors the film with a performance that draws from serenity and subtlety. His quiet manner and his strong belief in the good in others, especially in the slowly rotting system he’s part of, give the story its strongest axis of hope.
And Bale, who like Batman suffers from a syndrome of being given for granted, turns in the film’s most powerful performance as someone who has to take on all the troubles times two.
For his Bruce Wayne a line must be set between the careless playboy image and the part of him that comes closer to his alter ego and leads him to put his secret identity in jeopardy.
For his Batman a limit must be established between how strong is his will to fight injustice, without crossing to the side of lawlessness.
This is no ordinary superhero and Bale vanishes so much into both of them that even his character begins to feel shakable.
While we wonder what makes people choose between good and evil, Bale pushes us further and at moments makes us believe that Wayne is so selfish that as Batman he uses Gotham (designed by Nathan Crowley as a concrete labyrinth that rivals the mind in terms of dark alleys) as his personal playground or as his unlimited therapy session where he can battle his demons at the sake of others.
The Joker feeds from this sense of duality inside everyone and in the film’s greatest scene poses a dilemma of Melvillean proportions between the passengers of two ferries.
During these moments you can see “the whole world contained in one place” as people fighting for survival build democracy for contingencies, wonder about the paths they’ve taken in their lives and even dare to think they can decide who lives and who doesn’t.
Interestingly enough, here the audience also makes a choice and based on this personal decision the film will have a different outcome for anyone who watches it.
While for some it will instill the need to find the light shining in the darkest places, for others who have laughed at the Joker’s horrifying deeds it will just be a reassurance of apocalypse.
What remains true is that in “The Dark Knight”s sadomasochist view of the world the brave ones are those who wonder if we’ve become immune to other people’s pain; with the potential for the heroic lying in the path this leads them to.