' ' Cinema Romantico: The Dark Knight

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight

You're standing on a beach and you see a tidal wave form out in the ocean and it races at you and rears up, towering directly above you, ready to crash down and engulf you and everything around you, and so you scream and throw your hands over your head but then....nothing. So you look up and the tidal wave is still there, still hovering, and so you scream again and throw your hands up over your head but then....nothing. So you look up again and the tidal wave is still there, still hovering, and so you scream again and throw your hands up over your head but then....oh, you get the point. This is the best way I can think to summarize the experience of watching "The Dark Knight", Christopher Nolan's sequel to his 2005 "Batman Begins". The pace is so utterly, amazingly relentless it is almost agonizing. This isn't just a movie. It is a massive, sprawling novel with a movie screen as its canvas.

Batman (Christian Bale) continues to fight escalating crime in Gotham with loyal Police Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) but is also under fire for spates of Batman copycats taking to the streets and is blamed for the death of city police officers. But both Batman and his alter ego, millionare Bruce Wayne, see the city's new hope emerge in the form of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Along with Bruce's old flame, Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), Dent shows a fearlessness in attacking the city's crime syndicate.

Enter The Joker (the late Heath Ledger). The camera pressing in on that smeared, frightening face you won't know whether to look away or sit transfixed in awe as he proposes to the crime syndicate a new way to eradicate their problem - simply, kill the Batman.

These opening passages are fascinating for their economy. There is a great deal Nolan needs to establish as the rollercoaster car we're on is speeing up that first hill but every bit of exposition is dramatized. Every scene has something else going beneath that top surface. Nolan never has someone just sit and talk when he can have them talking while holding a gun to a person's head or, say, dangling upside down from a skyscraper.

The action scenes follow the formula established in "Batman Begins" by never repeating themselves. They are always new, endlessly inventive, and the biggest of them all is shot almost entirely sans musical score and speaking only for myself, damn, do I love it when a movie does that.

The performances are uniformly outstanding. Everyone who was good in the first one is just as good the second time out. By the time Gyllenhaal is done saying her first line you will already recoginze her as being a vast upgrade of Katie Holmes. Eckhart fields the most fully-formed arc of all the characters and makes it a completely convincing transformation. And, ah yes, Ledger as The Joker. He's as good as advertised, and, dare I say, a bit Brando-esque, in so much as his performance is defined by mannerisms and physical tics (the licking of the lips, the slight hunch when he walks) and line readings full of halts and pauses that seem spontaneous but were no doubt very deliberate. It is fantastic supporting work precisely because it is supporting work. As crazy as The Joker is and as much as Ledger owns the screen when he's on it, he never overshadows the other characters or looks to steal scenes. He enhances the movie. He isn't the movie.

The movie is about heroes and villains but the line between the two is severely muddied, while weaving in not-so-veiled references to terrorism in our current world, the question of whether or not mankind will turn on itself in the bleakest of situations, and tragedy of Shakespearean proportions (don't think Julius Ceasar is referenced just for kicks and giggles).

The old adage in screenwriting is that at the conclusion of the 2nd Act you have a bit of Falling Action and then rev back up for what should be a quick but pointed 3rd Act. I'm not sure, but "The Dark Knight" might set the record for least amount of Falling Action. I think there was about a six-and-a-half seconds of it, and the 3rd Act is really just a 2nd Act redux. It keeps coming and coming, just like that tidal wave we discussed.

All this said, I wonder if perhaps it's all a bit much. There are no release valves, no moments to catch your breath. It's important to catch your breath. (My favorite part in "Batman Begins" was a catch-your-breath moment.) By the end you almost feel exhausted rather than stirred. Yet, I don't mean to imply "The Dark Knight" falls prey to typical sequel-itis. There's more, yes, rather than less, but it's not more explosions and more artificiality. Nolan has so much to say and so much to show. Maybe I liked "Batman Begins" a little more. But maybe "The Dark Knight" is more bold. And if the one criticism I can manage is that a film is too bold, well, is that really a complaint?

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