Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight

Batman Begins, the reboot of the Batman franchise that precedes The Dark Knight, was a novel take on the whole Batman mythos. It spent most of its running time justifying the wackiness of a dude putting on a costume and fighting crime in real-world terms. It was also the first Batman movie that (finally) correctly identified that Batman does, in fact, have a super power, after all--he's rich. Playing with themes of noblesse oblige and grounding the action in the landscape of an urban crime drama, it found a new, welcome spin on the character and justified its re-telling of the Batman origin story. It also barreled past a perfect ending about an hour or so into the film and went on and on through some ho-hum plot about supervillains poisoning the water supply or something. Now, on the heels of that film's success and amidst a huge cultural footprint comes The Dark Knight, a film even more overstuffed and overplotted than its predecessor. It goes even further in the attempt to remove Batman from the arch, exaggerated comic book universe and place him in the middle of a modern American city, and also outwears its welcome by going on far longer than its plot deserves. The film is two and a half hours of superbly produced scenes of dour, sweaty machismo, but features little-to-no dramatic tension for most of this time. It's weird, because the script has the air of a well-structured and nuanced procedural with motifs and themes that bounce off of one another, reflecting the ultimate larger purpose of the film, and the chief villain is a wondrous, relevant rendition of modern day anxieties. But the film is, ultimately, a dreary experience puffed up with unearned self-importance, and, while there's a lot of chaotic movement and things blow up real good, it's monotonous. Everything is always happening at the same level; each scene and each gesture is as grand as the last one. As a result, The Dark Knight congeals into a puddle of pretty goodness, its ambitions encased in the ceaseless drone of the execution.

That said, it's still often a mesmerizing film. When it's working and everything is clicking (which is about half of the time), it's a magnificent crime drama about a desperate, rotting city. A large part of this success is due to Heath Ledger's Joker. The late actor's performance is crazy-good or good-crazy; like Johnny Depp in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, his performance elevates the entire film. As written, this Joker is an anarchic terrorist, a self-described agent of chaos (...calling Maxwell Smart...). He may have a purpose, but whatever it is, his methods eclipse his politics and render them irrelevant. It's a perfect villain for the times, an exaggerated version of America's terrorist bogeymen whose methods and beliefs can seem so utterly foreign and impenetrable. Ledger's clearly having a good time with this; he employs a bunch of crazy tics and grimaces, and intones most of his lines with a chilling deadpan. A less capable actor would have gone too crazy, but Ledger imbues the craziness of the character with a palpable sense of masochism and self-loathing. It's soon clear that Batman's use of force and technology is no match for the sheer psychological guile that this villain possesses. All of this informs the best scene in the film (and Ledger's in most of the movie's best scenes), an interrogation scene where Batman is free to pummel and torture the Joker, but finds himself powerless nonetheless. It's the first and only time in any Batman film that the villain and the hero seem completely equal, flip sides of the same coin, and the only moment in this film that truly embraces the scarred, freakshow nature of its characters.

What a shame, then, that Ledger's buried amidst the movie's rambling, listless plot. The movie has a lot going on, enough to fill a few episodes of a weekly TV series, but it doesn't find any traction until around the halfway mark, when things begin to get a bit personal for the characters. As mentioned, it's all very smartly written with its themes of scarring and despair and loss and so-forth. And I liked the way it cared enough about characters on the periphery to give them their own mini-stories within the main plot, but a lot of the film's subplots don't work and just wind up as padding to the runtime. Early in the film, Batman goes to Hong Kong to capture a money launderer, but the whole thing just rings of a pretty diversion, an excuse to shoot some cool exteriors and throw in some exposition about a pivotal piece of technology. And, for all of the work the screenwriters did to foreshadow the eventual corruption of Aaron Eckhart's District Attorney, Harvey Dent, his transformation is rushed and sloppy. This is doubly disappointing because Eckhart is also crazy-good in his role, but he's hampered in his most interesting moments by a makeup job that looks like it belongs in the Halloween display at Spencer's gifts. There are buried hints of greatness in the script, but the movie spreads itself too thin and the plot becomes so convoluted that it distorts anything resembling a coherent or intelligible or relatable story.

The most troubling aspect of the film is its use of Batman himself. For one thing, someone chose to give this hero an unintentionally hilarious vocal effect, like someone accidentally pressed a reverb button on the sound board when mixing in his dialogue. His unnaturally deep and echoy vocal presence is just silly. He sounds like an incompetent lead singer of a Goth band who covers up the inadequacies of his voice with audio effects. This would be easily overlooked but for the fact that Batman is quite chatty in the film--he seems ready to invite characters over for tea at times. Anyway, Christian Bale isn't exactly the most commanding of presences here, and his life as Bruce Wayne is all but ignored in favor of the corruption of Eckhart and the Joker's preening. Batman is forced to make several choices throughout the film, choices with dire consequences for his character, but it makes no difference, no impact because it's not clear who Batman is anymore. Frankly, the character seems to be about as confused and random in his own morality as the Joker. He sees killing as the ultimate taboo, the one thing he won't do, but when he's perfectly content to smack people around, violate civil rights, and wantonly destroy property with barely a second thought, it just comes off as an arbitrary rule. The movie tries to exploit this by having the Joker force Batman to confront the futility of ideals in the rotting, festering world of Gotham City, but, while the confrontation is fun, the filmmakers do very little with it. They basically turn Batman into a square, like Kevin Costner's boy scout Elliot Ness from The Untouchables, lamenting his impotence under the threat of the sexier bad boy. But, really, the character is just ignored. You could quite easily remove Batman from this movie completely and have a much tighter and probably better film about a valiant District Attorney facing the perilous evil in himself while trying to stop a sadistic madman. This is bad news for a film that ends with Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon monologuing about Batman's mythic importance to Gotham City.

But, look, all of this complaining about the shortcomings of The Dark Knight is really a bit of scolding. The movie isn't bad, really, just disappointing. I find myself wanting to wag my finger at it to set it on the right path. There's quite a bit of good, grim fun in the film, and while the overbearing sameness of the execution is wearying, the film is nevertheless commanding. If you're willing to ignore the awfulness of the film's climactic showdown which features Batman utilizing a really stupid-looking (and, after a time, unnecessary) SONAR technology to fight the Joker and a drama on two cruise ships that plays out like the worst disaster movie from the 70s ever made, the film moves from scene to scene with an appealing confidence, indifferent to the muddled script. It's easy to get swept away by its briskness. The cinematography and the use of Chicago locations are grand; Gotham is not a cartoon here, but a stand-in for all modern urbanity. It renders the despair and hopelessness that marks city life rather beautifully, though it, of course, ignores any positive aspects of living there... you know, things like a symphony or good bookstores. It's frustrating because, with all of its strengths, the film has assembled many of the right ingredients, but just drops them into a pile onscreen. Despite the magnificent, handsome production and Heath Ledger's classic performance, the movie only works in fits and starts. Besides, there's a limit, I think, to how much real-world verisimilitude you can employ in a film about Batman before the arch, crazed nature of its main character starts to feel out of place, and the movie pushes right past it to the point that the whole thing unravels, becoming nearly as absurd and cheesy as the 60s TV series.

Would be a good double feature with: Thief