I never would have thought it possible that the best film of this year, or any year, could involve a masked “superhero.” Ah, but that’s where the epic, five-act Dark Knight cheats. Here we have a sprawling film about a damaged and, yes, possibly even deranged billionaire vigilantly fighting the forces of chaos in the form of a maniac clown. Such words are not written lightly for Heath Ledger as Joker supplies one of the most vivid and impenetrable villain performances of the decade. And the support staff ranging from Michael Caine to Morgan Freeman is equally up to task. Christian Bale, of course, is the heart and soul of the film but I gotta hand it to Nolan and co. for allowing Bruce Wayne/Batman to exist as one piece within the larger jigsaw of Gotham’s rich and varied metropolitan ecosystem. Bale allows us in on his struggle but he never whines like many Hollywood Superheroes tend to do. Bruce Wayne does his part and takes his bruises. And not just the physical kind either.
As a piece of cinema –a pure piece of cinema– “Dark Knight” is consistent, cogent and completely involving. Unlike Nolan’s flawed but fascinating franchise reboot “Batman Begins” (the best Batman…till now) this sequel has a theme (the fate of Gotham) and it targets it with equal part action and ideals. What will surprise many, though, is how much more this is a thriller/cat and mouse detective film than it is simply action. With an epic feel for the duality of men who fight crime and men who are crime, this film is reminiscent of the crime saga “Heat” of all things. Yes, the action supports the story but, in turn, story supports character. And from character: tone. Some may argue that this film is simply too long and ponderous to work. I say a good film is never too long. This is especially true when a director has integrity, vision and a game plan. On this spectacular project Nolan confidently explores the space of his screenplay, rendering with an exacting vision this city and these characters before it puts them in action–this refreshing stance sets “Dark Knight” apart from most if not all summer movies. Also unlike the usual summer movie, there’s not an abundance of needless style at play, either (ahem, “Wanted”). Instead of trying to distract the viewer Nolan allows the actors, beautifully rhythmic musical score and reliably lucsh cinematography by Wally Pfister to flesh out the story.
High energy set pieces scenes include motorcycle chases through the dark and soiled streets of the city, the opening bank heist where criminal turns on criminal, and countless race-against-the-clock-itties where Batman must race from one side of the city to another to meet Joker’s demands a la “Die Hard With a Vengeance.” All have meaning and stakes; the action elements enhance the story by giving the complex (if bombastic) ideological struggle between classes, morals and politics a real, almost Lumet-like edge. Batman, every the brilliant detective (a detail no film till now has really captured) works with the police in an attempt to “save” Gotham from Joker’s needless “terrorism” but by the end we realize that working with the system is part of the problem! To fight chaos the Dark Knight must that very thing, darkness, and accept that he too is an outsider or “freak.” And Joker telling Batman that “you complete me” is one of the character’s few lines that is dead serious–this underlines the film’s central point. On one hand we have Batman representing justice, imperfect as it may be. And of course there’s also the Joker who revels in chaos (a great touch is how Nolan muddles the Joker’s origins as his facial scar story changes). Joker, of course, steals the film but a twist(ed) development sees a third character enter the scene, the crime fighting District Attorney Harvey Dent known as the white (as opposed to dark) knight of Gotham who, with his incessant coin flipping, is all about chance. Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart, is the final piece to the film’s success and the final tipping point for me in being able to call this one a masterpiece. As he strives to rid Gotham of its criminal elements he comes across as a nuanced man that is pure in intention but vicious in compulsive determination. Hum, it’s almost as if he’s two faced. Having said that, the only entity that’s not two faced in “Dark Knight” is the filmmaker who’s bold enough to tell this story, and tell it straight.