Monday, March 01, 2010

Movie Monday - The Dark Knight, 2008, Part 1

We're finally reaching the end of our months-long recap of the Batman movies, from the serials of the 40's to 2008's "The Dark Knight." Like all my other recaps, this one is pure spoilers from start to finish, so if you're one of the three people on Earth who hasn't seen this movie, go watch it before you read this.

I have to say right up front that I was not looking forward to this movie before it came out. "Batman Begins" had been a very good film, but there had been something... forgettable about it. Maybe just the fact that it lacked a really powerful, memorable villain.

And I didn't have much hope that "The Dark Knight" would fix that. There was a ton of hype about Heath Ledger's Joker, but I wasn't buying into it. Number one, I'd never seen Ledger in anything before. All I knew about him was that he was the pretty boy star of that medieval movie where they sang Queen or something. I couldn't imagine that guy ever being riveting.

And number two, what I could see of his performance in the trailers kinda' sucked. He was just some dude in a grubby suit with greasy hair and smeared make-up--make-up!--with his face set in a Nixonian scowl and speaking in this buzzy voice like Jerry Lewis's Nutty Professor. The Batcycle looked cool, but from what I could see of the Joker in the trailers, I was going to hate it.

And then I saw it, and it was not at all what I expected. It was not a perfect film, by any means. It was simplistic and eminently parodiable. The symbolism and moral dilemmas were as subtly honed as sledgehammers, several scenes rang false for me, and Christian Bale's growly Bat-voice--so effective in the small doses of "Batman Begins" ("SWEAR TO ME!!!")--proved wholly inadequate for the long-winded speechifying that dominates the final fifteen minutes or so of this movie.

There's so much wrong with this movie. Where do I start?

"The Dark Knight" starts about a year after "Batman Begins." Batman is cracking down on the gangs, cutting off the supply of drugs to the streets. Unfortunately, he has also inspired some wack-job wanna-be vigilantes who dress up like him and attack criminals with shotguns (a detail inspired by, what else, Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns).

But there are other forces at work in Gotham. A mysterious mastermind known as the Joker has been robbing mob-owned banks, leaving a trail of bodies.

And there's a new district attorney in Gotham, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhardt), replacing the D.A. who got shot in "Batman Begins." Dent has gained a reputation as a brave and incorruptible defender of justice.

And just like the last time, Bruce's childhood friend, Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes (played this time by Maggie Gyllenhaal), is sleeping with her boss. Such a slut, that Rachel.

Speaking of which, Rachel is one of the things I have trouble buying in this movie. Gyllenhaal is no Katie Holmes, which is to say that her Rachel comes across as smarter, but also less pretty and fun (and let's face it, Holmes's Rachel was no barrel of laughs herself). Rachel spends much of her screen time looking tired and judgmental, with lank hair and deep lines cutting across her face.

Which isn't bad in and of itself, but both Bruce and Harvey are supposed to be head-over-heels in love with her, and the Joker calls her beautiful not once, but three times in his one scene with her. It's one of those things where we're supposed to believe the script and not our lying eyes, and it just doesn't work for me (except for one big scene, which I'll talk about later).

So as Batman is travelling to Hong Kong to grab a Chinese gangster with vital evidence for Dent's prosecution, the gangs are hiring the Joker to kill Batman once and for all. Only the Joker doesn't so much want to kill Batman as kill, say, everybody else, while causing as much chaos and terror as he can along the way.

And throughout the movie, almost every scene has some nagging detail that just doesn't make sense. How did the Joker know the other thug would be standing in exactly the right place to get hit by the bus? How did Lau manage to get all the money out of the mob banks without any of the mob bosses being alerted to it? Did Batman and Dent plan to let Gordon get shot, so they could fake his death and lure the Joker into the open, and if so, how did they make that happen? How did the Joker get all those explosives into the hospital without anybody getting wise, especially given that the other times we see his bomb set-ups, they involve dozens of barrels of fuel? How did Batman manage to loop the ropes on the floor ahead of time in just such a way that they'd catch the feet of every SWAT guy surrounding him? The entire movie is a festival of nonsense.

And yet, in the end, none of it matters.

Because the entire thing is done with such style and such grandiose ambition, that it goes beyond being a "really good comic book movie" and becomes a "really good movie," regardless of genre. And Ledger's performance really is as good as the hype made out. Credit a good deal of that to the writing and direction, also, because co-screenwriters Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan do some fascinating things with the character that I might talk about in more depth next week. And Bale is good, as are Michael Caine as Alfred and Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon. Aaron Eckhardt brings some real depth and intensity to his portrayal of Harvey Dent as well; too bad his villainous turn was so completely overshadowed by Ledger's.

And even though I bagged on Maggie Gyllenhaal, she has a brilliant moment in her final scene, when she realizes that Harvey is the one being saved and that she is going to die. We see that realization on her face, yet she still tries to comfort Harvey. In that moment, she really is beautiful, and we can finally understand why both men would be so deeply in love with her.

But still, after this...

I was a little disappointed to end up with this.

More random observations about the film next week.


sargon999 said...

Rachel is just a lousy character, no matter who gets stuck with her. I like Maggie Better than Katie Holmes, because Maggie is an actual actress as opposed to a hideous aberration of nature. But frankly, Rachel is better-written in the second one. In "Batman Begins" she essentially a sanctimonious bitch when she's not plot-exposition girl. At least in "Dark Knight" she is written like a person, not a screenwriter's device.

Bat-Cheva said...

Well, yes, I agree that Katie Holmes was a much better Rachel. But to be fair to the movie makers, Katie had fallen into Tom Cruise's crazy by then and simply wasn't available. Pity that.

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

I'll agree with better actress. I don't know that I'd agree with better-written so much. Or I will agree, but with this caveat: in "Batman Begins," Rachel was plot-exposition girl, and there wasn't much to her character as written. In "The Dark Knight," her character is written as a person (though not a person I much like, except for that one final moment), but Rachel has moved into the Thomas Wayne role: the saintly character who is supposed to inspire Bruce to be a better person or something. In other words, she has moved from plot-exposition girl to plot-device girl, and a plot-device I had trouble accepting at face value.

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

Oh, and no nipples.