Tuesday, July 22, 2008
The Dark Knight is a very good motion picture, a superb one in many respects. But count me out of any attempts to raise this film to the level, say, of The Godfather or even Lord of the Rings. Or, for that matter, the last film in which Heath Ledger & Christian Bale both appeared, the Dylan biopic, I’m Not There. There is something missing right at the core of this event.
I’m tempted to say that what’s absent is emotion. Where you really notice it is in the remarkably sanitized & muted demise of one of the key characters. It’s entirely off-screen as the heroes of this film rush to rescue another key character. There’s plenty of explosions, but it’s difficult to tell which are the ones that almost get our rescued one & which perhaps claimed the other. Everyone appears affected by the death, but not really. Batman is confused. The film’s other primary protagonist responds counter-intuitively, to say the least. Out of grief, that one decides to stand for everything the late one opposed. What’s wrong with that picture?
But to call this emotion is to confuse the effect with its cause, the less-than-perfect narrative skills of Christopher Nolan. The key to The Dark Knight, I fear, is its PG-13 rating. There are an enormous number of explosions, lots of shooting, more than a few key deaths, but very little blood or gore. The very worst of it is some stitching Bruce Wayne does to his own bicep fairly early in the going. The Joker, tho he talks a good knife, never actually deploys it onscreen. His own scars, which at one point he suggests are the consequence of child abuse, are covered by paint, coming across most of the time as a blur. His very best moment is his most femme, waltzing out of a hospital in a nurse’s uniform & red wig as the building implodes behind him.
The alleged gore that greets Two-Face is right out of The Terminator¹ and borders on the cartoon gore of Indy Jones or Ghostbusters, tho this is definitely Aaron Eckhart’s breakout motion picture. But one of the reasons he stands out is one of the deeper problems of the picture. Against Heath Ledger’s decidedly creepy & very hot adaptation of the Joker, Nolan has made the decision to keep everyone else, save Meister Eckhart, very very cool. The blue flame explosion that occurs in advance of the title at the beginning has it exactly right. Morgan Freeman is hardly used at all, Gary Oldman, again playing against type as the good cop, has exactly one meaty scene & that on his back², Michael Cane plays Bruce Wayne’s manservant in a much lower key than he did in Batman Begins, and Christian – “It hurts to smile” – Bale, the latest in the Robert Mitchum school of under-emoting, tones it down even further, if possible.
Eckhart tho, because he has the most complex role in the film, is allowed to ramp it up a little. And tho he’s not Laurence Olivier, nor even Heath Ledger, he does a credible job. He & Ledger are the two bright lights in this otherwise very dark & muted landscape.
Consider, by way of contrast, how the death of Sonny, played by James Caan, impacts The Godfather, how it transform every character, from Brando to Pacino all the way to John Cazale’s pathetic Fredo. This is exactly what we’re supposed to be feeling as Bruce Wayne tries to figure out whether or not to go on & as Two-Face does his flip into evil. But I didn’t feel it at all. Perhaps because you (I) never buy these characters as in any way people. Oldman & the one who gets blown up are really the only two exceptions.
What replaces characterization, the human element, is pacing. This is the strangest aspect of The Dark Knight . It keeps basically to the same rhythm from beginning to end. Whether it’s a chase scene under the el (with the Joker alternately driving a garbage truck & in the back of a moving van with rocket-propelled grenades – how does he do that?), or a swank fundraiser with the hoi polloi for the new DA, this film never lingers. Consider, again by way of contrast, how pacing was used in the latest Bond flick, Casino Royale, going from the hyperventilating opening chase to the feels-like-real-time game of poker. The Dark Knight feels more like a sluggish version of a Bourne film, the same incessant drift from scene to scene, but without the constant threat of capture.
So it just doesn’t quite work, at least for me. I should note that I think the balance between cool Christian Bale & hot, agitated, psycho-giggling Heath Ledger does. They counter one another quite effectively & their scenes together improve throughout the course of the film. When the Joker tells Batman he’ll never kill him because “you complete me,” you realize just what a great film this could have been. Ledger is the most memorable villain since Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, all of nine months ago, tho both pale against Anthony Hopkins’ original performance as Hannibal Lecter. Will Ledger get a supporting actor nomination from the Academy? Almost certainly. Will he win? Only against a very weak field.
¹ And if you forgot that, seeing an advance preview for Terminator Salvation, due out next year, starring not Ahnold the Govenator, but none other than Christian Bale (!!), ahead of Dark Knight, brings it all right back.
² Oldman’s amphetamine-fueled bad cop in The Professional (a.k.a. Leon) shows just how over-the-top he can go, much hotter & wilder than Ledger. One of the genuinely great character actors of our time, Oldman’s muted, even slack performance here clearly is a choice.