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July 23, 2008 > Movie Review: The Dark Knight

Movie Review: The Dark Knight

By Jeremy Inman

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Rated PG-13

Writer/Director Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight charts new waters for the comic book movie genre - waters films like Jon Favreau's Iron Man have only previously dared to dip their toes in. Fans of the previous Batman title, a franchise reboot aptly named Batman Begins, will find that Nolan's grittier, more real-world approach to the mythos of the Caped Crusader returns even darker than before. Make no mistake; though it's rated PG-13, this is a movie that begs for an R rating - definitely not one for the younger kids. This is due in part to the films grim subject matter and amped up body count, but it would be a perverse oversight if I didn't accredit the macabre tone to the masterfully portrayed new (and re-envisioned) clown prince of crime - The Joker.

The late Heath Ledger's final finished role leaves us with a Joker that's part Hannibal Lecter and part Alex from A Clockwork Orange. He's brilliant, calculating, unflinchingly homicidal - and hilarious. Watching him amble oddly across the screen, flicking his tongue in and out and twitching at unexpected intervals is not unlike watching a magician saw his assistant in half. Only here, the blade is real, the assistant gagged and bound, and the audience held in their seats at gunpoint unable to look away. The tension he emits is palpable and impossible to ignore even when he isn't on screen. Like the shark in Jaws, he is the force that drives this film forward.

So, then, what is the plot? Well, without giving too much away, this time around Bruce Wayne has settled into his role as protector of Gotham. He has forged an alliance with up-and-coming police Lieutenant Jim Gordon and Gotham's stalwart new District Attorney Harvey Dent, proving a formidable force for Gotham's seedy underbelly to circumvent. In their desperation, the mob turns to a new face in town, The Joker, to help rid them of the Batman and his newfound allies. Unfortunately for everyone, The Joker's only real motivation is to incite anarchy at every turn. With no real goal or ultimate desire, The Joker poses an interesting threat to our hero - is The Joker a criminal like any other, or is he something more? He's a pure force of nature, a maniacal (though at times oddly convincing) "agent of chaos," - a perfect foil for the regimented, morality-governed Batman.

As a matter of fact, Batman is almost a secondary character in The Dark Knight. The true arc of the film revolves around the rise and fall of Harvey Dent. As any fan of the comics (or even previous movies) might know, old Harvey winds up devolving from Gotham's "White Knight" into the physically and mentally fractured Two-Face, a man ruled by the unbiased forces of chance. How this plays into The Joker's plans is the core of the film, so without giving too much away, it's handled with far more care and expertise than any previous villain "team-up" in comic book movie history, if it could even be classified as such.

I keep returning to The Joker; he really is the reason to see this film. By the time of the film's release and the writing of this review, I'll have seen the film twice - once in Imax and another in a standard theater (read on for a comparison) and I thought long and hard before writing this whether or not Heath Ledger's performance was truly as astounding as I - sitting glued to my seat, mouth agape - had initially believed or if the actor's tragic and untimely death had amplified the impact of his final completed performance.

After two screenings and a couple of days to process, I can honestly say that it is one of the stand-out performances of recent memory. Oscar-worthy is a big term to throw around and may very well be apt. But with absolute certainty I can say this - Heath Ledger's Joker is undoubtedly one of the towering screen villains of recent cinematic history. I have no hesitation placing him in ranks with the aforementioned Hannibal Lecter. As a matter of fact, everything from his ghoulish scars and makeup to his meticulously crafted voice and posture scream the essence of what makes The Joker one of the very highest-revered comic book villains of all time. Moreover, without sticking to the same tired acid-squirting-flower or chattering teeth routine - or without even offering up an origin story for that matter - the film takes the character to levels of believability and frightening realism that I, as an avid comic book reader and purveyor of films, never thought possible. Never once did he register to me as Heath Ledger; he was never anything but The Joker in flesh and blood.

Not to be overlooked, Christian Bale returns as the tortured do-gooder striving against ever-mounting odds to rid his city of villainy and corruption. Gary Oldman reprises his role as Gordon. Michael Caine (in a perfect casting decision) returns as Alfred, the ever-helpful butler and Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne's oldest friend and quasi love interest. Adding to the mix of pedigreed performers is Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent, Gotham's new and determined district attorney. His is a particularly interesting arc to follow, especially near the end. I'll just say he almost keeps up with Ledger's Joker.

Astounding performances aside, this is not a perfect film. It deserves to be seen in Imax; a historic thirty minutes or so of the film (by my estimation) was shot in the actual Imax format, which means, for those scenes, the actual image will be significantly cropped in standard theaters - resulting in a few jarring (or even confusing) shots for filmgoers who don't want to shell out thirteen bucks to see it in Imax. Bale still sounds a little funny speaking in his gruff "Batman voice," especially during the film's more dramatic moments and some of the action is just too violent for no visible blood in the movie (gotta keep that PG-13 rating...)

Also, there will be complaints that, at two and a half hours, it's a bit too long, or that the plot can be a tad convoluted. But that's almost the point - this is a deep movie exploring very dark and high concept themes, not Spider-Man 3. The ending, maybe appropriately, will leave you with thoughts of "where the heck do we go from here?" But for me, or those like me - fans of the material or just moviegoers who have been rooting for a good comic book movie to come along and legitimize the genre - The Dark Knight is in a class all its own.

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