Every once in a while there is a film that stays with you long after you’ve left the theater. This kind of film makes you think and really contemplate it’s deeper meanings, it’s imagery, it’s place in the history of film and it’s effect on you. This kind of film really makes you take a look at yourself and contemplate society as a whole. This kind of film has many different layers and details, some that only become apparent the more you dissect it and some you can only see upon repeat viewings. This kind of film becomes richer and more powerful the more you view it and the more you reason yourself through it. “The Dark Knight” is just such a film. I don’t think it empty hyperbole to say that “The Dark Knight” is an exceptional piece of filmmaking. Christopher Nolan has crafted something truly rare and not easily dismissed.
“The Dark Knight” is not a perfect film, there are certainly things I didn’t like about it (Christian Bale’s voice when he’s Batman, for one thing). But those few things are easily forgettable when viewed within the whole story. The story is a really strong frame upon which every other element of the movie hangs. There are many themes explored here: friendship, loyalty, one man making a difference, belief in oneself, belief in those you trust, belief in the good of the members of a society and wanting a better life for oneself and those around you. All of this really revolves around the triangle of Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne/Batman. These three men truly want what’s best for the city and citizens of Gotham and they each go to great lengths to prove it. It’s interesting that while Batman is the public vigilante, Gordon and Dent also bend the law when necessary. They both understand that Batman has a significant role in ridding Gotham of crime and they are both not above bending the law or turning a blind eye when it is needed. One of the points brought up by Dent is that, yes, one day Batman will need to answer for his crimes as a vigilante, but for the moment he is an important element in keeping the citizens safe and bringing the truly lawless to justice. This trinity also believes unwaveringly in Gotham’s citizenry to be good people and to make the right choices. Seeing how strong the three of them are and what they are able to accomplish makes Dent’s fall all that more tragic. The citizens of Gotham themselves also get to shine in a significant part of the story as the best and the worst of the city show us what they are capable of when faced with one of the ultimate moral decisions. There is a lot going on in this film and fortunately it has the running time to make all the character developments and story progression feel both unrushed and fully fleshed out. You really get the sense of seeing a naturally developing story on an epic scale.
The characters, and the actors portraying them, are the highlight of “The Dark Knight” for me. There isn’t a weak performance in the entire film. Even Eric Roberts, who normally hamfistedly chews the scenery, does an impeccable job. Nolan proves what a skillful director he is as he pulls, at worse, fantastic acting out of his cast and, at best (and there is a plethora of this), stunning, masterful work from an ensemble at the top of their game. Christian Bale plays a Bruce Wayne/Batman who is totally committed to his mission, yet sees in Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent a way to both make Gotham City safer and a way to no longer need to be the Batman. Bale makes you believe that Bruce Wayne is ready, almost desperate for a normal life with Rachel Dawes. And I’m really, really glad Maggie Gyllenhaal took over the role of Rachel Dawes as I felt that Katie Holmes was the weakest point of “Batman Begins.” Gyllenhaal does a superb job as Rachel, defiantly never acting the victim, even when she is one. Eckhart’s Harvey Dent is the kind of politician you wish would really exist. He’s honest, tough and fearless in going after the corrupt. Watching him become Two-Face and the character traits that he retains, albeit in a twisted and brutal fashion, is really fascinating. Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, all actors who seem to effortlessly inhabit any character they portray, show us in no uncertain terms why they are revered as much as they are. Even the cameos by Anthony Michael Hall as Mike Engel and Cillian Murphy as Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow are outstanding.
Which, of course, leads us to Heath Ledger’s Joker. I can’t help but be sharply reminded of Brandon Lee and “The Crow.” Granted, Lee died while making “The Crow”, but the parallel for me is how their final, posthumous performances turned out to be career defining. Ledger gives us the quintessential Joker and a performance that is nothing short of flawless. The first time through, you literally have no idea what he’s going to do at any given time. He’s labeled perfectly in the film itself as an agent of chaos. That is very true. He is pure anarchy with no remorse. Best of all, we are given no motivation for why he does what he does. He simply creates havoc and chaos and terror for no reason other than that’s what he wants to do. The Joker is pretty much the polar opposite of Batman and he revels in it. I know it’s already been said many times and will be repeated for a while to come, but if Ledger doesn’t get at least a Best Supporting Actor nomination then it really is time for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to call it a day. Tell me I’m wrong.
You may have noticed that at no point in this review have I called “The Dark Knight” a comic book movie. I have not and will not refer to it as such because I believe to do so would truly be a monumental disservice to Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and the entire cast and crew. They have not made a comic book movie, but have given us an exceptional film. “The Godfather” is not just a gangster movie. “Citizen Kane” is not just a life-story movie. “The Wizard of Oz” is not just a fantasy movie. While I wouldn’t presume to put “The Dark Knight” up on the mantle next to those three films (yet), I do think that relegating it to simply being a great comic book movie is just wrong. It is an exceptional film and deserves to be judged and critiqued on the merits of being a film. “Iron Man” is a comic book movie (and I love it for being so), but “The Dark Knight” is not. This film transcends its genre to give us something you don’t get to see but maybe once or twice every few years, the kind of film I described in the opening paragraph. Again, tell me I’m wrong.