Shades of grey: The Dark Knight
Reality check: the job of a movie critic is to watch movies and give their thoughts; outside of those necessities, it is a medium as open to varying formats and interpretations as any other literary form. No one person is the same and anything less than full honesty is a futile effort (yes, it’s a depressing world outside), and no matter how highly favored something is by a group, there will always be someone who feels less than enthusiastic, or vice versa. With that in mind, you’ll understand my near depression at the fact that a group of fans of Christopher Nolan’s new film The Dark Knight – most likely a small overall percentage, so help us God – have taken to an almost methodical verbal beating of anyone who writes something less than enamored about the picture. Forget the man hours being wasted on this silly task and focus on the content of the messages, some of which dispute pleasantly or maybe even agree, but the overwhelming majority of which range from angry and bitter to outrightly hostile, their own array of insults, condescending queries and threats of violence as brutal and intentionally hurtful as what one might expect to hear shouted outside an abortion clinic by angry protesters. I failed to notice the point at which Keith Uhlich, in his review of the film, either (a) threatened his readers and their loved ones with unwanted sexual behavior or (b) spoke of punting babies, because without the presence of one of those, there's hardly anything to be so angry about.
This sort of thing had bothered me long before I became personally acquainted with some of those with their own particular experiences (long before I met Keith, I pitied him the moment I saw his ½ star United 93 rating on the Slant main page), and it’s only more aggravating now having had some slung my own way as well. Were more of it constructive (it happens, on occasion, and I thank those who do, I as much of a self-critic as any, constantly attempting to improve and learn), my tone would be different and this post possibly non-existent. As it is, it’s pathetic and a waste and I pity the depraved, lonely lifestyles most likely led by those who partake in it. (As for the armies at IMDb voting 10’s and 1’s back and forth between The Godfather, The Dark Knight, and The Shawshank Redemption…don’t get me started, seriously.)
If the paragraphs above bored you, know that they were very much necessary on my end, a mental cleanse after the insipidness of this cinematic clusterfuck. Nevertheless, for all the bile and hate on display, I’ve found it a surprisingly rewarding experience on my end: one that broke open new ideas and feelings inside me as regards consumption of art, which is the perpetual goal of anyone truly enamored with the medium. Seeing The Dark Knight opening day (and two more times since), I’ve been roused and moved if let down in bits and places, mostly enthusiastic but still able to share some of the central concerns held by the film’s detractors (even though it singled my loss of IMAX virginity, even the added technical immensity of my first viewing failed to totally cover up its patchy dramatic work in the third act). Already a hound for theatrical experiences, I revisited the film to find my own feelings on it and to better articulate them once I did, each time enjoying it immensely even while coming closer to sharing some of such controversial negative views (the Joker’s killing of Gambol sucks, plain and simple), even if only by virtue of understanding them a little better. My feelings were examined, came out deeper and fuller, and I feel more complete for it.
All that notwithstanding, it must be said that nothing brought me back for repeat business more than the opening and closing scenes (though a handful of moments in between smack equally of brilliance, like flashes of astounding light shooting out from the canvas). Were films judged solely by the emotive impact of their first and final images – here, the former a wall of blue flame from which the Batman symbol emerges, silent and menacing (complimented by the clashing, tension-mounting strings of Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard’s borderline psychosis-inducing soundtrack: see right), the latter a variation on the “into the sunset” finale that, in this critic’s mind, does nothing less than instantly elevate its work into the annals of modern mythology – The Dark Knight would be a masterpiece of awesome magnitude, their concentrated, bookend impact alone surpassing that of most others from its loosely-defined genre in their entirety. (One hundred and three.) No closing has chilled me to the bone this much since Miami Vice (as far as openings go, Aqua Teen remains the recent champion), and the potency of these images – down to their exact, brief presentations, all the more powerful for not being lingered on – speaks to Nolan’s growing skill as a visual thinker. It’s an astounding leap forward from the bottled-up stagnancy of Batman Begins, which skates by on pulpy, overt philosophies and dramatic thrust with a minimum of images to truly call its own. The visions of a hallucinogen and a poetic leap through a waterfall come to mind, though even these diamonds don’t compare to the freaky insanity glimpsed in spurts and stretches throughout The Dark Knight.
At the height of a battle with Batman, the criminal mastermind known only as The Joker describes their ongoing power struggle as being like an unstoppable force against an immovable object. Against the nighttime sky and set to the steadily excellent soundtrack, Nolan rotates the camera (detached, imperfectly) as he says this, his form momentarily aligned with the widescreen canvas like an unexpected coffin of doom, the frame glimpsing the bottomless horror of his insanity/brilliance before completing its 180. Altogether, some half dozen moments like this exist in the film, representative of entertainment, of cinema, at it’s most effective, calculated and fine-tuned to perfection (I think that even the film’s biggest detractors will agree that most of it looks very carefully thought-out, if perhaps misguidedly so).
My impression is that Nolan the director has come into his own in a new way, though Nolan the writer may have been put on the back burner as a result of these new focal areas. Indeed, the creative process, as glimpsed by the final product, feels divided unto itself (perhaps a shift or maturation of vision post Heath Ledger’s tragic passing?), though kudos to Nolan for smoothing over as many seams as he managed to. Structurally, the film is sound to these eyes, but script-wise, it runs at the mouth almost as much as anything by George Lucas. Much as the word “fear” lost all meaning in Begins (often recited in what sounded like parenthetic thoughts, amusingly suggesting a script never properly edited after having notes scrawled all over it), so too does The Dark Knight feature the following repeat offenders: “chance”, “fair”, “rules”, and some stupid story about a jewel thief meant to symbolize insanity in the world. The aforementioned Joker scene expresses more about the clashing justice systems and moral codes being waged in Gotham than the rest of these overwritten declarations combined (think of those embarrassing essays one must write in Philosophy 101), though it’s not for a lack of effort on the part of the cast. Bale is staunch and wounded as always but has too little to do, Maggie G. effortlessly sexy and emotionally layered, and so on and so forth, and though I found Aaron Eckhart too held-together as the emotionally and physically ravaged Harvey Dent, I blame that exclusively on his character’s altogether rushed moral crisis. The scene after The Joker sways him to the dark side may feature among my favorite explosions in film, but Jesus Harold Christ on rubber crutches we get it that you like your chaos! (Bless you, Heath, for somehow making it watchable in your delicious wig and nurse’s outfit.) Similarly is the pseudo love triangle between Bruce, Rachel and Harvey more ineffictively told than shown, rendering critical advances in story emotionally neutered in their effects.
Though a deft utilization of such imagery as has been discussed and the persistent dramatic swell of the collaborative score, The Dark Knight establishes Nolan in my mind as a master of mood, the ultimate problem here being that mood isn’t enough, though it has the power to sustain above and beyond the immediate action. Here, it becomes something of a crutch during stretches of exposition – still surging forward like a freight train but prone to exposing the weakened infrastructure beneath it (that’s film for you – a brilliant canvas of mingling of layers and input, at once the work of one and many). Nearly great, its efforts at insight into post-9/11 society is less interesting than its operatic gestures of emotion, seemingly manifest directly of its creators aesthetic adolescence (not at all a criticism), full of ambition and determination, sometimes out of place, sometimes striking chords of hidden beauty you’ll never forget.