Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Essay Review: The Dark Knight (****)

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Monique Curnen, Ron Dean, Cilian Murphy, Chin Han, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts, Ritchie Coster, Anthony Michael Hall.
2008--152 minutes
Rated PG-13 (violence)
Reviewed by The Teen Critic on December 10, 2008.

Question: Can superhero films get any better than "The Dark Knight?"

Answer: No.

Reason: It transcends the genre by delving into themes not-so-different than those in "The Godfather" or "GoodFellas."

This is a masterpiece and the best film of the last three years. Better than "WALL-E" and "No Country for Old Men" and "Children of Men" and "Pan's Labryinth." That's quite the list to beat, but "The Dark Knight" does it. This is truly operatic in nature, a Greek tragedy with a bat as its hero and a clown as its villain. Isn't that true irony? We are to fear bats and delight in clowns, but that which we fear is the very thing that will ultimately save us. Or will it? By the end of "The Dark Knight," the viewer is not so sure. It's that impressive on the viewer's minds, that thematically rich, that emotionally charged. I have now watched the film five times, and will watch it again, and each time it has left me staggering. I've used that word quite a bit: staggering. What does that even mean? you might ask. It means this: something so good as to be disconcerting to the viewer.

I'm really at a loss, with the most recent viewing, to point out what works best in the film. Is it the cinematography? Certainly Wally Pfister has shot this film to perfection, every little corner something to be savored. Is it the film editing? Lee Smith is one of the most overlooked editors out there (he previously edited "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," one of my favorites of 2003), and the editing in the action sequences is flawlessly mounted, every scene dripping with suspense. Is it the musical score? Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, recently requalified for this masterwork, have written something completely different yet utterly familiar; the use of violins and cellos here is quite something (and is it just me, or is that continuous droning sound reminiscent of "There Will Be Blood?").

Or is it the acting, with brilliant performances by the entire ensemble? Christian Bale is unusually strong with his quivering, gravelly voice of someone wearied by fighting crime. Aaron Eckhart is equally strong as a man who had everything and then lost it. Gary Oldman is the heart and soul of the film, giving a stunningly great performance as Jim Gordon, a man who knows justice and does the right thing to the end. Maggie Gyllenhaal is tour-de-force as a woman who loves two men, one more than the other, and may die for both their causes. Michael Caine is typical Michael Caine, just better; who knew that acting as a butler for a superhero could be one of his finest roles? Morgan Freeman, good in everything he's in, is equally powerful.

Or is it the person whose performance has been hailed by the AFI as one of the finest in cinema, Heath Ledger? His untimely death has nothing to do with how good he is. James Berardinelli nailed it, saying that the performance "would have been no less memorable had it not been his last and most grueling." Ledger is a force of nature...when he isn't speaking. This is the best villain performance I've seen, as well as the best performance in general. You just believe him every second he inhabits the screen. If Ledger doesn't win the Oscar, the Academy will have a riot outside Kodak Theatre. Forgetting my opinion for a second, many call this the best performance of the year in any respect, and they're not wrong.

I thought about giving a plot description but have opted against it. The reason for this is: it's made over a billion dollars worldwide. If you don't know the plot, why are you reading this review? So, if you want plot, go somewhere else. Other than the fact that Batman is less popular than normal and must fight an insane terrorist named The Joker, what do you need to know? Just that this is a complex and labyrinthine (but never impossible) plot that is accessible to everyone.

Before "The Dark Knight" came out, "Spider-Man 2" was, for me, the pinnacle achievement in the superhero genre. After viewing this film for the first time, I saw that that sequel was only the beginning. Not that it diminishes the power of the earlier film, but with it I always felt aware I was watching a "comic book movie." I even felt this sometimes with "Batman Begins." What Christopher Nolan has done with "The Dark Knight" is to dissect it completely with the world of Batman as we know it but still stay within the restraints of the genre. Yes, Bruce Wayne is Batman, but more Ray Liotta in "GoodFellas" than Michael Keaton in Tim Burton's overrated "Batman" and "Batman Returns." There are shots here that will haunt me. The shot of The Joker hanging his head out of the window of a cop car.
Films like "The Dark Knight" come out once in a blue moon. What some people forget, I think, in the middle of the Heath shuffle, is that "The Dark Knight" is perfectly fine, with or without Ledger. Take out the great performance by Ledger, replace it with a lesser one, and you've still got a brilliant film. The plotting, the technical aspects, the acting--all have spelled a mixture that has Oscar written all over it. This is what happens when all of the aspects of great superhero cinema are put to their best uses.

"Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded." This line pervades the themes of the film. I wonder what the Academy will make of this film come the January announcements. But will they be able to look at this as transcendent of its genre? I certainly hope so. It's good enough to win the big award (and I think it will, despite my predictions saying otherwise). We shall see.

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