The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008).

"Welcome to a World Without Rules," reads the tag at the top of the poster for The Dark Knight: and below it, as in so many other advertising images for action thrillers over the past few years, is a minimally adjusted representation of the World Trade Center in flames. Even though Christopher Nolan's first entry in the Caped Crusader series, 2005's Batman Begins, was more explicitly about global terrorism, The Dark Knight taps with greater potency into the emotional aura of post-9/11 life. The Joker is not the fantasy equivalent of Bin Laden or al-Qaeda; he's more like a frantic projection of our own damaged ethical cores, an image of the kind of anti-human consciousness one would have to summon up to feel at home in the present ruleless world.

Rulelessness, chance, and anarchy are constant themes in this thundering, mournful behemoth of a movie. One character philosophizes that a flip of a coin is the only "fair" way to decide issues of life and death, as this chance-based gesture is the most accurate model of morality as it actually works in the world. The irony, which this character is too distracted to appreciate, is that to invoke fairness in the first place belies the theory. The Joker himself would never make such a claim: he is absolutely free from any concerns about fairness. He isn't capable of compassion, or self-doubt, or--most strikingly--fear. His own continued existence is of importance to him only as a moment-to-moment strategy for achieving his primary objective, which is, as he puts it, "fun."

The malevolent jouissance Heath Ledger embodies in his portrayal is so powerful it's almost too much to take in in one viewing. He's more believable and more terrible than any other Joker to date, including Jack Nicholson. Nicholson was funny, grotesque, and stylish, but not really scary--not this scary, anyway. Ledger is funny, too--like a heart attack. His "disappearing pencil trick" cements our understanding of his nature early on, even as it gets a big guffaw from the audience: we find ourselves gulping in mid-laugh.

The rest of the cast is excellent as well, but Ledger dominates to such an extent that any rehearsal of their virtues would be anticlimactic. And at any rate, other than the Joker, it's the total look and sound and mood of the film that one walks away remembering. Also its length: at two and a half hours, it starts to take on the feel not so much of an epic, but of a mini-series. I mean this in a good way: as in a season of The Sopranos or Deadwood or The Wire, part of the impact comes from spending so much time with the characters that when things take a drastic turn, it hits harder.

As I said, there's more to process here than is possible after watching only once, which is one of the signs of a great movie--or possibly a confused one, though even if this should be the final verdict, it's confused in ways that make it worth dissecting. It's hard not to distrust how entertaining the film is--surely anything that gives that much immediate sensual gratification must be a sham. But it's unsettling as well, and to Nolan's credit, it's not always easy to tell the difference: is it distress or pleasure with which we watch the world burn? And if our distress becomes the same as our pleasure ... I deleted what I had typed here, because it was just too morose.


Daniel Bailey said...

i like this review.

i don't know how i felt.

heath ledger terrified me. his performance was cathartic and terrifying. if i had been a camera guy or something i would've been terrified of ledger.

i don't know what to think about this movie. there was so much evil in it that i feel like it's disingenuous at times in its wanting to be 'evil.' but at the same time heath ledger terrified me. but it was his textbook evil that he took to the extreme that horrible and obscene. the disturbing graphics of twoface's fall from grace felt boring to me.

"ruthlessness, chance, and anarchy," yes. but it was the way these things were not forced upon us but were presented as facts that made this film so terrifying.

the "disappearing pencil trick" was hilarious and i love how it brought the audience so easily into the evil of the movie. i almost wanted to joker to win for the entire film. or maybe i just didn't want him to leave.

i think we, as a country, need this kind of "evil." i don't know.

i don't know if this makes sense.

i'm drunk.

i don't know what i'm saying.

but i feel like the joker's evil cannot be laughed off as some strange evil villain thing, no matter how funny or disturbing (ferry boat) his violence. i think this is what we are.

(and i am very drunk)

this movie is great

(i didn't mean to make this comment so long)
heath ledger's performance terrified me

shanna said...

i can't wait to see this. except i have to wait until at least next weekend. boo.

richard lopez said...

some of the best films elicit the kind of response to evil. i've not seen this film yet, i begged out of the franchise after seeing the second batman film and was wholly disgusted by its frivolity. but ledger was a brilliant actor and every review i've read of this film is falling over in utter amazement at the achievement.

and yet, the despair, i'd like to have read what you deleted, even if you deleted it in jest. i recall the notorious _cannibal holocaust_ which elicits similar sorts of horror, nihilism, despair and glee at watching something so terrible that it hits the viewer in the gut like 20 lbs hammer.

perhaps that what art, in whatever its forms, does is question rather than answer. seems like an obvious observation, but in our hopeless times, when i look to the near-future i shudder in horror at what is coming in this century, art sometimes is looked upon to confer an affirmation or condemnation. but to present uncertainty, ambiguouity, humor and horror, hmm, might that be taking the stance for our newly born century?

Gary said...

Damn. I haven't seen a superhero film since 1989's Batman, and that was only b/c Dan Davidson dragged to me to see it.

It looks like I might have to see this one, though. Thanks for the review, Kasey!

anonymous said...

You caught that tagline, "Welcome to a World Without Rules," but didn't elaborate on it. The tagline is WRONG. The rules of this movie are so obvious it's painful. Batman is pure good to the point of self-sacrifice, and the Joker is pure evil to the point of not even having a motive. My dislike for this movie grows every day.

Lalage said...

You didn't find it upsetting that "The Dark Knight" seemed to have been commissioned by Erik Prince as a vanity piece? You weren't unnerved by the justifiable commandeering of civilians' cellular devices--and the reassurance that a chivalrous tyrant will surrender his usurped power? Your solar plexus didn't itch as Batman's confidence in military technology was misplaced not a once? Do you recall the tank maneuvering Batman's slack body into the correct posture for the continuation of his pursuit? You didn't find the artificial basso profundo of Batman's voice suitable for a technocratic authoritarian? The emasculation of whistle blowing paper pushers, weasels biting the hand that feeds, that frees, failed to distress you?

I was weirded out by this movie.