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THE DARK KNIGHT – Dark as night and nearly as long, Christopher Nolan’s new Batman film seems like a start and somewhat an end. Pitched at the divide between art and industry, poetry and entertainment, it appears much darker and deeper than any Hollywood adapt of its comic-book kind, including “Batman Begins” – Nolan’s 2005 moody resurrection of the series – by embracing an ambivalence that at first glance might be mistaken for pessimism.
But no work stuffed with such thrilling moments of pure cinema can be regarded as pessimistic, even a post-heroic superhero movie like The Dark Knight.
Apparently, truth, justice and the American way can’t deal with it anymore. That may not fully explain why the last Superman, “Superman Returns” hit the bottom, but I think it helps explaining why, like other recent ambiguous American heroes, the new Batman rises above. Talent holds a considerable part in Nolan’s Bat restoration, and so does his seriousness of purpose. He brought a gravitas to the famous superhero that swiped away the concept that had shrouded Batman in cobwebs. It helped that Christian Bale, whose sharp face seems as if it had been carved with a chisel, slid into Bruce Wayne’s indifference as easily as he made Batman’s suit.
The Dark Knight isn’t a exceptional renovation like its prior, which is to be expected of a film with a large price tag, well north of $100 million and huge expectations. Instead, like other filmmakers who have successfully recreate genre production, Mr. Nolan has found a way to make Batman relevant to our time, giving him shadows that remind you of the character’s difficult beginning but without lingering mustiness. That’s actually nothing new, but what is surprising and startling is that in The Dark Knight, which follows the story of the first film, Mr. Nolan has turned our heroic Batman into a villain’s sidekick.
That would be no one else but the Joker, of course, a demonic creation and three-ring circus of one wholly inhabited by Heath Ledger. Mr. Ledger died at age 28 due to an accidental overdose, after principal photography ended, and his death might have created a traumatic atmosphere over The Dark Knight if the performance were not so alive. But his Joker is a creature of such twisted life, and the performance is so extraordinary, thrilling and insistently present that the characterization pulls you in almost at once. When the Joker enters one fight with a deadly flourish and that murderous smile, his morbid grin an exact duplicate of the Black Dahlia’s haunting ear-to-ear grimace, you will experience chills down your spine.
A self-described agent of chaos, the Joker abruptly arrives in Gotham, as if he’d been hiding up someone’s sleeve. He quickly overtakes control of the city’s crime syndicate as well as Batman’s attention. Mr. Ledger’s performance was pure gold under the character’s white mask and red leer. Licking and chewing his sloppy, smeared lips, his tongue darting in and out of his mouth like an animal in tense, Ledger turns the Joker into a tease who likes to taunt criminals and the police, giggling like crazy while attempts to burn the world down. He doesn’t fight for anything or anyone, he isn’t a terrorist, he’s just plainly terrifying.
Mr. Nolan is playing with fire here, but partly because he’s a showman. Even before the Joker goes wild, the director lets loose with some comic horror that owes something to Michael Mann’s “Heat,” something to Cirque de Soleil, and quickly sets a gruesome, twisted mood that he sustains for two whole hours of freakish mischief, vigilante justice, philosophical asides and the ordinary trinkets and toys, before a last half-hour filled with absolute gunfire and explosions. This grand finish which includes a chaotic image that implies the world has been turned on its axis for good is sloppy, visually incoherent, but still touching.
Though entranced by the Joker, Mr. Nolan, working from a script he wrote with his brother Jonathan Nolan, does include a considerable space for romance and tears and even an occasional joke. There are some newly introduced characters, especially Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a crusading district lawyer and Bruce Wayne’s nemesis for the affection of his longtime friend, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Similar to almost every other character in the film, including Batman and Bruce, Harvey and Rachel live and work in literal glass houses. The Gotham they live in is happier and brighter than the old city of “Batman Begins”, theirs is the symbolic modern megalopolis, quiet, anonymous, a city of distorting and broke mirrors.
From certain angles, the city the Joker inhabits looks quite like New York, but it would be reductive regard the film too directly through the lens of September 11 and its aftermath. You may remember that day when a building collapses in a cloud of dust, or when firemen douse some flames, but those resemblances belong more rightly to our mind than to what we see revealing on screen. Like the rest small- and big-screen thrillers, The Dark Knight’s engagement with 9/11 is diffused, more a matter of inference and ideas of chaos, fear and death rather than of direct assertion. Yet, the fact that a spectacle like this even glances in that direction ensures that American movies have entered a new era of ambivalence when it comes to their heroes.
In and out of his black suit and on the constant move, The Dark Knight remains perhaps a recessive, almost elusive character. It partly has to do with the costume, which has brought complications for almost every actor who wears it. With his eyes dimmed and technologically mysterious voice, Mr. Bale, who’s suited up from the beginning, doesn’t have access to an actor’s most expressive tools. Having already been told Batman’s origin story in the first movie, Nolan initially doesn’t seem to be motivated to advance the character. Still, by giving him rivals in love and war, he has also turned Batman’s demons from inside his mind to the outside world.
That change in determination strains the melodrama from Mr. Nolan’s original conception, but it gives the story more tension and excitement beyond his personal struggle. This is a much darker Batman, less human, more strangely other. When he looks over Gotham on the edge of a skyscraper roof, he seems more like a gargoyle statue than a savior. There appears like a touch of demon in his stealthy menace. During an important scene, one of the film’s good characters claims that this isn’t a time for heroes, the meaning being that the moment now belongs to villains. Which is why, when Batman takes flight in this film, his dark cape stretching across the sky like webbed hands as if he were trying to own the world nearly as much as save it.
In its grim intensity, in The Dark Knight, we can rather feel the vibe of David Fincher’s “Zodiac” than Tim Burton’s playfully gothic “Batman”, which also implies that it’s closer to Bob Kane’s original comic and Frank Miller’s 1986 reinterpretation. That makes it more heavy, and at the same time, almost pop-Wagnerian, but Ledger’s performance and the film’s visual beauty are exceptional. No matter how pessimistic you feel about Hollywood, it is hard not to love a film that makes room for a scene of the Joker leaning out the window of a stolen police car and wildly laughing into the wind, the city’s lights glowing behind him like jewels. He’s not just a dangerous clown in black suit, he’s also some kind of masterpiece.