Bat Out of Hell
12 July 2008
By David Edelstein
They don’t make superhero franchises much darker than this.
Even if the death of Heath Ledger hadn't already draped it in a funeral shroud, The Dark Knight would be a morbid affair: It could only be darker if Batman died. (He does die a little, on the inside.) The director, Christopher Nolan, has decided to get real with the thing. Forget Gotham City—or Anton Furst's splendid Gothic Gotham of Tim Burton's Batman, which summoned up the freaky superhero's inner landscape of vaulted arches and gargoyles. We're now in a modern, untransformed Manhattan, where the Joker's opening bank heist unfolds in a tense, realistic style with multiple point-blank shootings. It's a shock—and very effective—to see a comic-book villain come on like a Quentin Tarantino reservoir dog. But then the novelty wears off and the lack of imagination, visual and otherwise, turns into a drag. The Dark Knight is noisy, jumbled, and sadistic. Even its most wondrous vision—Batman's plunges from skyscrapers, bat-wings snapping open as he glides through the night like a human kite—can't keep the movie airborne. There's an anvil attached to that cape.
Nolan and his brother Jonathan (they co-wrote the script) have a fine, ironic starting point: Batman (Christian Bale) has inspired copycat vigilantes, and they're making an even bigger mess of crime-plagued Gotham City. It's as if an action—the introduction of a vigilante do-gooder—has triggered an equal and opposite reaction. And Batman has a true counterforce: a Joker (Ledger) who's a terrorist, a one-man insurgency, with no motivation except bringing chaos. He fancies himself a Lord of Misrule; he taunts the gangsters whose goons he exploits; and he assassinates—or works to corrupt—do-gooders like cleft-chinned district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Batman—talons tied by pesky ethics—can't stanch the madness.
On paper, the morality play is intriguing, but a lot of the dialogue should have stayed on paper (I can imagine a study guide: "The Joker tells Batman he can't fight chaos because he has too many ‘rules.' Do those rules ultimately help or hinder Batman in his quest for justice?"). Nolan is grappling with the Big Themes of vigilantism (especially urban vigilantism), and he did pretty well in Batman Begins: The movie was a foundation on which to build a new series; even in the mouth of the ridiculously chirpy Katie Holmes (as Rachel Dawes, stalwart assistant D.A.), the thesis line, "Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about making yourself feel better," made an excellent superhero mantra. But the psychological twists in The Dark Knight—especially the transformation of Dent into "Two-Face"—are baffling as drama. They play as if they'd been penned by Oxford philosophy majors trying to tone up a piece of American pop—to turn it into an uncivil Shavian dialogue, Don Juan in Hell with mutilations and truck crashes.
Oh, the verbiage probably wouldn't matter if those truck crashes were any fun, but the tumult is spectacularly incoherent. Nolan appears to have no clue how to stage or shoot action. He got away with the chopped-up fights in Batman Begins because his hero was a barely glimpsed ninja, coming at villains from all angles in stroboscopic flashes. There are more variables here, which means more opportunities to say "What the f--- just happened?" I defy you to make spatial sense of the early scene in which Batman battles faux Batmen, gangsters, and the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy in a cameo that comes to nothing). If you can, move on to Level 2, diagramming the "Bat-tank versus Joker-truck versus cop car" chase. Then, finally, take the Ultimate Challenge: following the climax with Batman, the Joker, more faux Batmen, decoy hostages dressed as clowns, a SWAT team, and Morgan Freeman's Lucius with some kind of sonar monitoring gizmo that tracks all the parties on video screens. Actually, Freeman looks like he knows what's going on. Maybe the sequence plays well in sonar.
I saw it in Imax, and let me tell you, on that colossal screen, those skyscraper bat-plunges (in Gotham and Hong Kong) are something to see—and feel. If they rigged up that Disney World thing where your seats tilt in sync with the camera, they'd have to keep out pregnant women and people with fear of heights. The momentum doesn't carry through, though. The Dark Knight is all fits and starts—fitfully suspenseful, fitfully scary, one jerky episode after another with jolts of brutality to keep you revved up. When Burton's Batman came out, some prominent critics griped that the film was too violent for kids. Wait'll they get a load of this.
The Dark Knight needs every drop of Christian Bale's charm. His Batman rasps his lines in a voice that's deeper and hammier than ever, and when Bruce Wayne has to pretend to be a mindlessly hedonistic playboy, his smirk carries a trace of Dubya entitlement. (Bruce pushes to use Lucius's sonar device for FISA-like surveillance, and Lucius—despite his stern civil-libertarian qualms—does it just this once.) Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over (hooray!) for Katie Holmes and graciously doesn't trash her predecessor's characterization. She makes sense of it: Rachel is a bratty little show-off who also happens to be kind of smart. The other great pleasure is watching Pretentious English Thespian Gary Oldman play the soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon as the most ordinary of ordinary American Joes. Rarely has flatness been so witty.
Which brings me to the performance that's the opposite of flat, the one you really want to know about.
How is Heath Ledger? My heart went out to him. He's working so very hard to fill the void, to be doing something every second. It's rave and rage and purge acting. This Joker is a straight-out psychopath—a Stephen King clown-demon with smudged greasepaint and yellow teeth and hair that appears to have never been washed. As written, the Joker is like a souped-up Andy Robinson in Dirty Harry (only this Harry won't blow him away with a .44 Magnum), and Ledger revs it higher and higher. He bugs his eyes and licks compulsively at the gashes that extend his mouth. He tries on different voices. First he sounds like Cagney in White Heat, then slides into a prissy singsong like Al Franken's Stuart Smalley, then throws in some fruity Brando flourishes and a dash of Hannibal Lecter. He's lethal—fast with sharp objects—but apart from a gruesome bit with a pencil not terribly prankish. I couldn't take my eyes off him, but in truth, I found the performance painful to watch. Scarier than what the Joker does to anyone onscreen is what Ledger must have been doing to himself—trying to find the center of a character without a dream of one.