The Dark Knight
directed by Christopher Nolan
(Warner Bros., 2008)

Believe every bit of the hype surrounding Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight.

This is a whole new kind of villain. Ledger's Joker is neither the clown nor the giddy and gimmicky killer of past interpretations. He is disturbingly demented, shockingly amoral and utterly without conscience. He is, frankly, scarier than any comic-book bad guy I've seen. And, fine performances all around notwithstanding, Ledger completely owns this film, singlehandedly turning what could have been a cape-and-costume slugfest into a rich, psychological thriller through his mastery of over-the-edge madness.

The film is packed with scenes of intense, brutal violence, although the acts themselves are often subtle, fast or entirely offscreen. Watch for the bit with the pencil; it's over before you know it, but that initial shudder when you realize what just happened will stick with you for a while.

Nothing about this movie is predictable. It's complex and mature, stressful and brilliant.

Christian Bale, as Batman, is the dark palette of order against which Ledger scrawls his wildly colorful chaos. Bale gives us a man who is deeply conflicted over his role in the world, unsure if he's helping more than he's harming, and at times he pushes the line further than you expect him to go. Still, Bale gets a little lost in the film; his supporting cast is so strong and Ledger's part is so towering, Batman -- through no fault of his own -- seems almost secondary in his own movie.

Also overshadowed by Ledger's chilling performance is Aaron Eckhart's excellent turn as the crusading district attorney, Harvey Dent. He sells the role of a law-and-order idealist who is a hero in his own right and will do what it takes to get the job done. His performance later in the film -- the marketing campaign for the movie carefully avoids all mention of it, so I'll keep the secret here ... although any fan of the comics will have a pretty good idea -- is not quite so convincing, if only because there isn't enough time devoted to its development.

As love interest Rachel Dawes, Maggie Gyllenhaal steps into the role abandoned by Katie Holmes and makes a once-cardboard figure into a valuable, three-dimensional part of the cast.

Several supporting characters deserve mention, in part because they did their jobs so well, and in part because they are A-list actors who manage to stay reliably on the sidelines without overreaching their parts. Michael Caine is a solid, dependable Alfred whose efficiency only slightly masks real caring for his reckless charge. Morgan Freeman is Lucius Fox, Bruce Wayne's money handler and Batman's research and development arm, and he is both noble and sincere in both roles. Best of all is Gary Oldman, whose Lt. Jim Gordon is competent and unassuming, a good cop who does the right things without ever stepping too far into Batman's spotlight.

Cillian Murphy, the Scarecrow of Batman Begins, even makes a brief appearance to lend continuity to the film. After all, part of the nature of Batman's foes is their constant reoccurrence. (One of the biggest failings of the last series of Batman films was the habit of killing each villain off at the end.)

This is, by far, the darkest Batman film on record, perhaps one of the darkest comic-book movies ever made. It sets a new bar, and I'm eagerly curious to see if the next one can top it as much as this topped Batman Begins.

I'm only sorry Heath Ledger won't be a part of it.

review by
Tom Knapp

9 August 2008

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