Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Dark Knight - My Review

This review has been a long time coming because I am not a very good writer, and I don't often have the time and patience to write long posts like this. I type for a few minutes and the A.D.D. kicks in, and I am off surfing the blogs of Macotar, Sue, the Dashner Dude or Laslo Hollyfield and then I wonder where the night went.  For what it's worth...here is my review of The Dark Knight.

The Dark Knight is not a film filled with oversimplified notions of good and evil. Instead, it is about the struggle to stop those who would terrorize and destroy civilization, and more importantly, the struggle to overcome the heart of darkness within.  The Dark Knight is a film about how hard it is to do the right thing. A film where characters must make life and death decisions in the blink of an eye, and live with the very real consequences of their actions. A film where characters have their moral beliefs stretched to the breaking point in order to protect innocent lives. A film where there are some men, so evil, so twisted, that you can’t reason with them, can’t negotiate with them, because they just want to watch the world burn.

As the film begins, Gotham is a city that is still under siege from the criminal elements of the mob, but Batman is making a difference. Jonathan Crane, a.k.a. “The Scarecrow,” who once threatened all of Gotham, has been reduced to a common drug peddler. When the Chechen complains about the effects fear toxin is having on his clients, the Scarecrow replies, “If you don’t like what I have to offer, you can buy from someone else. Assuming Batman left anyone to buy from.” The criminal element that once ruled Gotham is now on the run, and in constant fear of running into the Batman.

All that changes when a new villain rises up to fill the void.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is a chaotic force, bent on proving to Batman that all men are balanced on the edge between sanity and madness. He wants to show that a little push is all it takes for humanity to fall into anarchy and destruction. A violent sociopath who kills people for his own enjoyment, this joker is not a grandstanding villain who dances to Prince like Jack Nicholson. Heath Ledger’s Joker is a nihilist with no rules, no fear and his only desire is to bring civilization to its knees.  If the rule is to never negotiate with terrorists, how does one fight an enemy that kills his own henchmen after they help pull off a complicated and multi-part bank robbery? How do you stop someone who believes kidnapping, assassination, and blowing up a hospital is all part of a good day’s work? How do you fight someone who laughs gleefully while being pummeled in a police interrogation room and says things like, “You have nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength.” As a self-proclaimed agent of chaos, the Joker believes that the only sensible way to live in the world is without rules. 

What levels must one stoop in order to bring this man to justice and to bring his chaos to an end? How much of your soul would you be willing to sacrifice to bring the madness to a close?

That is Batman’s struggle: to find balance between his rules of decency and order and avoiding the type of man he would have to become to stop the Joker’s reign of terror. Batman walks the line between his anger and his sense of duty.  He walks in a gray area, and must be ever vigilant that he doesn’t stray too far and become that what he hates most...a killer. 

Batman can bend the rules that the rest of law enforcement cannot. He doesn’t read criminals Miranda rights, he drops them off buildings and breaks their legs. He doesn’t respect extradition rules, he flies into Hong Kong and kidnaps the man he wants. He is able to do the dirty work that needs to be done, but can’t be accomplished by the police. Bruce Wayne believes that Batman has no limits, but he finds out how wrong this idealism is when he is tested to his limits by the Joker.

Batman is an ego driven superhero. He chose this life. No science experiments with Gamma Rays, no aliens or radioactive spiders created him. He is a self-made man. What he has become, or rather, what he must become in the defense of the greater good is a major theme throughout the film.  Batman is a superhero who actually wants to give up the cowl and the cape, in exchange for a normal life with his childhood sweetheart Rachel. Unfortunately for Bruce Wayne, Rachel cannot wait for Gotham to no longer need Batman, and has begun to fall for the new “White Knight” of Gotham, her boss and the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent.

In Dent, Bruce sees a chance for the city of Gotham to have a hero that they can believe in. Not a masked vigilante, but a bright, charismatic, and strong-willed District Attorney. A man that is willing to charge all the mob members with the same crime at the same time. A man who could be the face of Gotham, the hero that the city needs and deserves. This being a Christopher Nolan film however, Dent can’t be exactly what he seems to be, and in fact has a violent and dangerous temper hidden just beneath the surface.  He is willing to let Batman break the law, as long as it results in the greater good of Gotham, and in many ways Dent is jealous of Batman’s ability to do what he cannot. He cannot be seen to even push the boundaries of the law or everything he has accomplished will come tumbling to the ground. The closest that he comes to giving in to this desire is when a defendant tries to kill him under cross-examination and Dent punches him in the face. 


It’s this second side of Dent that is literally brought to the surface after experiencing the horrific burns to his face and body after the kidnapping of himself and Rachel. It’s Rachel’s death that brings Harvey to the edge of madness, but it’s the Joker, dressed as a nurse, a uniform of healing, that pushes Dent into the maniacal Two Face. At the end of the film, Two Face tells Gordon, “You thought we could be decent men at indecent times. But you were wrong; the world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair.” The very philosophy that the Joker shared with Dent in the hospital.  As the Joker tells Batman towards the end of the film, “I took Gotham's white knight, and brought him down to our level. It wasn't hard. Y'see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little...push.” The Joker’s plan of corrupting the incorruptible, destroying the hope of Gotham, bringing low their “White Knight,” has come to fruition.

Nolan asks a lot from his audience. His films are serious art films, wrapped in the guise of Hollywood popcorn films. The Dark Knight doesn’t wait for you to catch your breath, it doesn’t spoon feed you a plot, you are expected to be engaged in the film from the first frame, and for those that pay attention, the rewards are great. Nolan presents a city and its hero on the edge, with cinematography that swoops over Chicago skyscrapers, and shows us Batman literally standing on the edge of the Gotham equivalent of the Sears Tower. 

Gotham is a city that has begun to heal, begun to believe in itself, but one that will rapidly descend into anarchy through the actions of one man, a few guns, some gasoline and explosives.

The Dark Knight suggests that people in fear are the easiest to manipulate, as seen in the sequence where the Joker tells the people of Gotham that if they kill Reece, he won’t blow up a hospital. Any average person, even a police officer with a sick relative, can suddenly become a killer if given the proper motivation. 

The Joker suggests that if the people on one ferry blow up the other boat, the first boat will be saved. If neither side acts in time, both boats will be destroyed.  Nolan leaves the audience with the impression that the Joker may be lying.  If someone pushes the button, both boats could explode. It could be that neither boat would blow up, it could be a decoy. It could be that instead of causing the destruction of the other barge, they may instead destroy their own. Not unlike when the Joker revealed the locations of Dent and Rachel, he may have lied to make things more interesting and fun for him to watch. Luckily, neither boat turns the key, and Batman stops the Joker from completing his plan of mass murder.

Batman at the end of the film is filled with guilt over the death of Rachel, the shame of being manipulated by the Joker into choosing her death, and in the rise and fall of Harvey “Two Face” Dent. His decision to take the blame for Two Face’s murders mirrors Dent’s claim earlier in the film that he was the Batman. Dent makes the sacrifice and lies to the citizens of Gotham so that Batman can continue to do the work that needs to be done. By claiming responsibility for the murders committed by Two Face, Batman is allowing Gotham to continue to see Dent as that face of goodness. The “White Knight” must not be seen as corruptible, cannot be seen as a murderer, for if Gotham saw the true face of its hero, the Joker would have won. The people of Gotham would realize that even the best of them can be brought low, that even the brightest light of hope can be diminished. Gotham teeters on the edge and Batman cannot let it fall. By claiming responsibility for these murders, Batman truly becomes the Dark Knight that Gotham needs, but doesn’t understand. He will battle in the shadows, he will run, he will take the fall, because he is the only one who can. Here is a man that only wanted to make a difference in the city his family built, and then live a normal life, and instead realizes that he will never be able to. 

He is no longer able to separate himself from his mask, he is The Batman.

The Joker tells lies to create and promote chaos, and the lies that Batman and Gordon tell are meant to preserve order. Batman is not a beloved figure in Gotham. He is an avenger, a vigilante, and a dangerous one at that. He is seen as the cause of the increase of crime in Gotham. A man who is blamed for replacing the devils that Gotham knew they had with a new one that they can’t understand in The Joker. He can endure what others cannot, and because of that, he is the true hero of Gotham. At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman isn’t looking for understanding, closure to his parent’s violent deaths, fame or fortune. He is giving everything up in order to push Gotham back into safety. The citizens need a villain, they need structure, a person to blame. They need to have a reason for why this has happened to them because if they discovered that it was all random, that there is no greater plan, no explanation and certainly no easy answers, the city would surely implode upon itself.

“I'm whatever Gotham needs me to be.”

Once Batman has given in to the darkness inside himself, no matter how pure his intentions were, there is no turning back, no way to change what he has become in the process. How does he live with the results of his actions? This isn’t a comic book film, this is a dark, mature, and gritty exploration of the American post 9-11 psyche. It’s a film about terrorism, vigilantism, and heroism. It’s a film about how far we are willing to go in order to feel safe. It’s about how far a person will go to destroy the civilized world. It’s about one man willing to stand against it all in an attempt to save us all. It’s a brilliant meditation on the state of the world, and a testimony to the strength of the human spirit. The ability to make the correct decision, the ability to withstand those that would destroy us, the desire to stand up to the darkness, no matter what it may cost us. Because it is worth the price.

1 comment:

Bill Galvan said...

Good Review Scoops!