The Dark Knight
Warning: Contains spoilers.
I can't figure out why I like the Bale Batmans so much (foxy Bale himself aside). Both movies lean heavily on storytelling maneuvers that I tend to hate, and both movies arrived in a flurry of ancillary "news" and charged expectations that usually mean I'm going to park it on the Netflix queue until the dust settles. But I like the Bale Batmans a lot, and while I would give the edge to Batman Begins, I really dug The Dark Knight.
This is not to say that The Dark Knight is a great film. It isn't bad, and the things it does well, it does extremely well — but it trips up its own pacing with repetitive lectures on the nature of fear, abstractions regarding black and white and grey, and what Gotham is alleged to need (often prior to/during what is intended as a climactic fight scene; see: Ebert's Talking Killer). The tempo didn't really work in the first place: the way each fight or chase sequence is choreographed is frantic, but not urgent, and then the sequences in relationship to one another don't have a good rhythm, so the tension created is not emotional, not related to the story, but physical, from cringing at repeated Foley fusillades — all in what seems like an effort to compensate for the PG-13, which permits gory crunches only out of frame.
And Rachel Dawes is acted with more conviction in TDK (not that that's saying much), but Maggie Gyllenhaal's best efforts still don't give the character much depth; Dawes is a foil, a collection of tied-to-the-train-tracks clichés who spends the bulk of her onscreen time looking pretty and righteous in order to motivate the heroes and/or mouthing platitudes about Choices and What Have You Become blah blah give the woman a sidearm and an inner life already. I don't generally interpret reactive female characters who have nothing of their own to do as an affront to the sisterhood, but once Dawes is tied up to an explosive, I'd like to see something about that trope subverted.
On the other hand, when the movie does try to turn a comic-film cliché on its head, it doesn't pull that off either, although it comes close, and the effort is interesting. The chronic over-explaining that characterizes both films thankfully did not extend to the Joker's motivations; a tiresomely flashbacked trauma he suffered as a child wouldn't have worked, and that the script didn't go there is a point in its favor. The insistence on the Joker's essential randomness, on the idea that sometimes evil just…is, feels real, but also feels out of place in this particular story. So much is made of the city needing a hero, a white knight, of Batman's code; it's simplistic on a metaphorical level, but it works for superhero stories. It's why superhero stories work at all. The concept that good and evil fall along defined axes is important to the genre, so to choose a villain with no axis as the place where your execution emphasizes subtlety over formula is a fresh choice, but there's a reason nobody else tried it, and it's not satisfying here, either.
And yet, it flies, despite the problems with the construction. The acting is full-stop outstanding, from everyone, but especially from Gary Oldman, who is not a beauty like the others and is kitted out in third-period-chem drag. He brings an "oy vey" attitude to the role that, along with the un-prettied-up "he's just a guy" costuming, gives the story depth. Everyone else is fantastic, too, and I almost didn't notice the bombastic dialogue because of how well the cast kept it connected to real emotion. It's very easy to overdo, and I don't love Bale's vocal choices when he's in the suit, but his Bruce Wayne is miles better than previous iterations, serious but not campy broody-Boreanaz like Keaton.
As for Ledger, well, I loathed Nicholson's Joker, so Ledger didn't have to do much to impress me, but that's just what happened: he didn't do much, and that impressed me. Yes, Ledger's Joker is hammy, but Ledger isn't — twitchy, but businesslike and not too pleased with himself. He pulls a couple of faces that reminded me a lot of the comic-book snake's-head Joker that used to freak me out as a kid. It's not a quiet performance, but its menace is more genuine, and for two hours, I came as close as I could to forgetting that it won't be repeated. From a human standpoint, it's gratifying that he went out with that. I don't know if we'd be hearing the Oscar talk had he lived, but it's the same sort of work as Ennis Del Mar: just what the character asked, nothing more.
It's far from perfect, The Dark Knight. I still don't believe Rachel Dawes is dead, because we didn't see a body. The whole police-department mole thing is confusing and in my opinion unnecessary.I didn't see the point of the Cillian Murphy cameo; if you're going to use that guy, use that guy. But it has a few wonderful moments that keep it in the air — Batman crouched above Gordon's apartment when his wife is told he's "dead"; the way Michael Caine renders disappointment; Fox turning off the monitoring system; the convict chucking the trigger out the ferry window (I didn't like the handling of the denouement of that sequence — i.e., there is no denouement, the hell? — but I have to say I didn't see that coming at all). It isn't put together very well, the story, but it has such affection for its characters, and it believes uncynically in what it's trying to be, and it is trying to be a sad, beautiful story. Whether it's succeeding or failing at any given juncture, it's entertaining; watching it try to be what it wants to be is two hours well spent.
Tags: Christian Bale Dark Knight Gary Oldman Heath Ledger Maggie Gyllenhaal Michael Caine Morgan Freeman movies untimely demises