REVIEW REVISITED: The Dark Knight (2008)

This is a reprint of my review which was first published on Rotten Tomatoes about 2 years ago. It appears here to mirror a series of reviews I had done for RT entitled 'From Burton to Nolan'.

The Dark Knight (USA, 2008)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart

The word 'masterpiece' is batted around far too often these days, and with The Dark Knight it's sadly inappropriate. Most of what makes Christopher Nolan a great modern filmmaker is up there on screen, and you cannot fault it for being a blockbuster which is attempting to address such relevant and complicated ideas. But while it is a general success, it is not as disciplined or focussed as Batman Begins and does not reward repeat viewing like The Prestige. It deserves to be celebrated and admired for its intelligence, but one must inevitably acknowledge that it isn't flawless.Having barely put a foot wrong in his previous films, The Dark Knight is the first glimpse of Christopher Nolan ever so slightly losing control. Like Batman Begins the film is a little too long, but it also feels slightly bloated, with much of the dialogue being rushed or mumbled in order to cram in all the ideas. It's almost as though there was enough plot and themes in here for two films, but rather than shoot back-to-back sequels, like The Matrix, Nolan decided to compress them down into one. Considering how mediocre The Matrix sequels were, this was not in itself a bad idea, but we still have to live with the fact that there are too many stories going on.Moreover, the film is edited and structured in a peculiar way. Where Batman Begins progressed in a defined direction, The Dark Knight feels more like a series of philosophical vignettes rather than something more progressive and incremental. The set-pieces are undeniably brilliant, but with the exception of the final sequence with the ships, you could put these set-pieces in almost any order and the film would feel the same. It's not terrible because of it, but it does mean that there is less cumulative tension than there could have been.This feeling of disorder is bolstered by the increased spectacle. Of course, being a blockbuster we don't expect things to be quiet, but there is a feeling watching all the explosions of Nolan pandering to the popcorn crowd just a little too much. In Batman Begins there were two hours of substance and character development, followed by 20 minutes of explosions to make up the trailer. In The Dark Knight, with its themes of escalation and chaos, it seems right that there should be more carnage, up to a point. But the carnage Nolan puts on screen eventually becomes repetitive, and his decision to film some of it in IMAX adds to the impression that he is overcompensating.These criticisms make it seem that Nolan's film is a failure, and when compared to the rest of his output, it is disappointing. But it remains head and shoulders above your average superhero blockbuster. The discipline of the first film has been compromised, but the film retains a desire to explore characters rather than just blow everything up. If nothing else, you have to admire Nolan for being able to take such an ideas-heavy film and sell it to such a wide audience.Thematically, this picks up the reins of the first film, dealing with the idea of understanding one's enemy as the means to defeating them. The difference is that the Joker is not a Nietzschean figure like Ra's al Ghul, someone who becomes evil by believing so strongly that he is doing good. In fighting him Batman still risks becoming like his enemies, but this lack of morality means that the cost to him will be greater. Killing the Joker seems necessary, but it would destroy Batman's moral code and undermine the belief that good can overcome evil in a non-Nietzschean way.The film is quite nihilistic in suggesting that even at its weakest, evil can triumph over good. The Joker's fate at the end remains uncertain, but the revelations surrounding Harvey Dent give a sense of him winning even though his direct influence is curtailed. The Joker's evil is allegorical to terrorism, in that his influence is fragmented and disparate. He does not take power by marching in with an army; he infiltrates, twisting, turning and double-crossing. Dent and Batman are the dove and the hawk trying to uphold rules in the face of chaos, and both are essentially destroyed in the process.The thing which marks out The Dark Knight from Nolan's previous work is that it is relatively conventional in its storytelling. It's ridiculous to call it 'dumbing down', but there is none of the jumping back and forth in time which made The Prestige so gripping. The themes are presented in a much more upfront way, both in the dialogue and the precise mechanics of the moral dilemmas. You could almost accuse Nolan of ramming ideas down the audience's throats, but thankfully the script and the characters are good enough to prevent this.The film has similar character development to Batman Returns, which was criticised for sidelining Batman in favour of the svillains. But that's always been the point. Since Batman is a superhero who uses cunning rather than powers, there has to be a section of the film in which he is the underdog; if nothing else it makes his eventual triumph more powerful and palatable. What makes The Dark Knight clever is that it does all this while withholding the Joker for a long time. Apart from the opening bank raid, the first act largely concerns itself with Lau and the Mob.As with all Nolan films, the performances are really great. Heath Ledger was generally a lightweight, but as the Joker he manages to channel Malcolm McDowell and make him truly terrifying. It's easily his best performance, although like the film it has become a victim of its own hype. Like the Scream killer, it has been so widely parodied that it isn't quite as scary anymore. Christian Bale remains convincing, and as before it is right that he should be a little sidelined so that the great evil is acknowledged.Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are both warm and affable, and the script does allow for more humour this time round - for instance, when Rachel Dawes and Batman land on the car, she turns to him and says, "Let's not do that again". Interestingly enough, the film glosses over the most interesting character development: the individuals closest to Bruce Wayne finding out his identity. This was explored in Batman Returns in some detail, but here there are several conversations between Bruce and Rachel in which she knows he is Batman, which somewhat undercuts the drama.The Dark Knight contains many promising performances, along with stunning visuals from Wally Pfister who gives Gotham a grungy and decaying edge. In the end it struggles to completely control all the rogue elements, but at least Nolan doesn't fall into the same trap as Sam Raimi on Spiderman 3, namely throwing everything at the screen in the hope that some of it will work. If Batman Begins was Nolan's equivalent of Alien, then this is his Aliens: more action-packed and slightly less compelling, but still weighty, intelligent and interesting. One only hopes that Inception will not be his Alien 3.

Verdict: Bloated but containing brilliance


Ed Greig said...

Bang on, great analysis. I liked your comparison of Batman Begins' ending to a flick on the nose. It builds so well before then that it's almost impossible to imagine what ending could have done it justice (Perhaps something as strong as the boats scene from DK). Many of the set pieces here could happily standalone as short films, let alone be reordered, especially the first sequence. I think that by delaying playing his Joker Nolan forces a three-hander into the last 2 thirds, hence the slight discomfort. It's tough to work with such an established mythology in a more condensed medium and he doesn't make it easy for himself. Perhaps the apparently less complex set up of DKR will mean he can finish with the perfect combination of build up and bang.

Daniel Mumby said...

Thank you Ed Greig for your eloquent comment :) I too hope that TDKR will be more disciplined, will be seeing it on opening weekend if at all possible.

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