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The Dark Knight   A

Warner Bros. Pictures / Legendary Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman.

Review by Rob Vaux

Did we Batman fans ever really know how scary the Joker could be? We sure thought we did. Alan Moore... yeah, he wrote a pretty scary Joker story once. Frank Miller too. Mark Hamill had his share of creepy moments during the groundbreaking animated series, especially towards the end when the writers were given leeway to really go nuts. But we always had something of an escape clause with those tales because they were set in a fantastic universe -- the same universe shared by flying demigods, islands full of amazons, and blonde Atlantean princes who talk to fish.

With The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan has taken that safety net away. He and the late Heath Ledger show us what the Joker -- comicdom's greatest psychopath and irrefutable proof that clowns really are out to get us -- might look like in the real world. A world full of real fears and real death, a world where we've seen what mass panic looks like, a world where the notion of a madman blowing up a city is anything but funnybook fiction. The Dark Knight portrays him standing among us in all his hideous glory -- far more vile than even the harshest previous embodiments dared reveal -- and I'll be damned if he doesn't look right at home. It's enough to make you curl up in the fetal position for a good week or so.

There are heroes out to stop him, of course, starting with the Batman himself (Christian Bale). Bruce Wayne has hit his groove after the formative years covered in Batman Begins and now aims to put a serious squeeze on Gotham City's underworld. His partnership with Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) continues to flourish and he finds a new ally in crusading district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), whose uncompromising idealism suggests that maybe Bruce can hang up the cape soon and leave crime fighting to the legitimate authorities. But that's before the Joker robs the city's mob kingpins blind, then offers to kill the Batman for them -- all part of a larger scheme to basically send Gotham off the deep end.

The Joker's ultimate goals are nothing new. The comics often play him as a borderline nihilist, happy to spread chaos solely for the sake of proving that normal folks can be just as sick and demented as he. Nolan ups the ante, however, by rendering his cancerous genius utterly and completely plausible. Ledger's cock-eyed, off kilter performance ranks among the most unsettling of recent years, and yet he still remains fundamentally real. This isn't some larger-than-life pop culture icon. It's just a man -- a twisted, psychologically irredeemable man who lost whatever remained of his soul a long time ago and now wants the rest of us to know what it feels like. His casual acts of brutality resemble Saw-style serial killer head games, but they also retain a core simplicity that more contrived cinematic efforts lack. "I just use dynamite, gunpowder, and gasoline," he chortles at one point... echoing the very real monsters who once struck at the heart of the western world with nothing more than box cutters and a couple of seats in coach.

We're closer to his state of mind these days than many are comfortable admitting, and the most terrifying moments in The Dark Knight offer no place to hide from that fact. Batman and his compatriots are thus arrayed not only against the Joker, but against what he represents: the willingness of nominally decent people to devolve into mindless savagery when the chips are down. Gordon's speech about escalation in Begins comes to horrifying fruition here, as desperate mobsters do anything to hold onto their power and the "freaks" of Batman's rogues gallery slowly begin to replace them. Bruce Wayne has to struggle with the possibility that he may be responsible for this state of affairs, and that while the war he's launched may be necessary, there will also be serious and unanticipated casualties.

On a more technical level, Nolan's directorial style is as elegant as ever. DP Wally Pfister once again conjures Gotham whole cloth from the city of Chicago (with a brief stopover in Hong Kong), while composers Han Zimmer and James Newton Howard infuse his images with unbearable intensity. Batman's various toys and gadgets -- duly provided by Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox -- retain their super-keen fascination without overshadowing the character's emphasis on pure brains. Nolan seems to have resolved the clunkiness which plagued some of the fight choreography in Begins, and The Dark Knight's set pieces are uniformly spectacular (the bank robbery which opens the film is the best of its kind since Heat). Editor Lee Smith assembles it all into a densely packed two-and-a-half hours, marred only rarely by a few spastic fits of over-plotting.

The film's tone remains even more impressive than the nuts and bolts. Nolan is clearly on the title character's wavelength and understands how a crisis of such magnitude might affect good men trying to do the right thing. Like Begins, Wayne's psychological conflicts (brilliantly conveyed by Bale) emanate outward, filling the screen with bleakness and gloom that have never been more compelling than in the hands of this director. Nolan also knows when to pull back from the abyss -- providing humorous refrains (gallows and otherwise), while reminding us of more optimistic figures like Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who help the Caped Crusader keep a grip on his soul. Without them to accentuate such a pitch-black vision, it might have succumbed to pretentious despair. But their nuances help convey both the enormity of Batman's task and its implications for the people he seeks to defend. It's worth noting that the film's most important moment comes not from any of the main characters, but from an unnamed man beneath them played by Tiny Lister. His simple, pointed gesture perfectly encapsulates the need for heroes like Batman, and acts as an all-important reminder in this grim near-masterpiece that everyone is capable of redemption.

Well, almost everyone.

* * *

UPDATE: The two-disc edition of the Dark Knight DVD contains some noteworthy extras that stress quality over quantity. A few standard-issue featurettes and trailers -- as well as the increasingly common digital copying options -- are trumped by a pair of outstanding goodies. The first is the collection of Gotham Tonight specials -- faux news documentaries detailing the state of Gotham City in the weeks leading up to the events in the film -- which appeared online as part of the promotional push last summer. The second is a series of six scenes from the film presented in their IMAX aspect ratio: giving an excellent impression of how the IMAX experience differs from the standard 70mm prints. The only downside is that they're not integrated with the rest of the movie; a complete cut featuring the IMAX scenes would have been very welcome.  As it is, however, the extras are more than enough to justify a few additional dollars for the two-disc version.

Review published 07.17.2008 (updated 12.08.2008).

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