Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight isn’t just a comic book movie and it isn’t just a crime movie. It’s a classic tragedy, epic in size. I caught the film in its IMAX incarnation (on 68th & Broadway) and while it wouldn’t be required to appreciate the scope of the film, it does not hurt. However, for a major studio film with moments shot in 70mm, the good is in the details.
Nolan’s vision of The Dark Knight places Gotham City and its citizens in a 1970s milieu: there’s a disconnect between the municipal and the federal. The city is hell, the establishment is corrupt, and Batman is not as much a proactive hero, as he is a reactive source of hope. Except he’s not entirely reliable nor entirely sacred. That would be Harvey Dent, the new District Attorney, and in many cases the true “dark knight” of the title. They face a fearless and insane opponent: the Joker, who operates with such abandon and insanity, that his very being defies the rules.
And that’s kind of the point, and that’s the strength of The Dark Knight. To properly tell a crime epic, you have to leave it all to chance. There can be no rules, and no trust. Loyalty is in the eye of the beholder. Motivations must never align, and they rarely do in this film. Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne have much in common (including the love of attorney Rachel Dawes), but their appetites are entirely opposed. Can the enemy of your enemy be your friend? That’s an age-old morality question, and The Dark Knight is nothing if not a moral tale.
Which is why the Joker (portrayed masterfully by the late Heath Ledger) can only work if he’s entirely unpredictable. There’s no rhyme or reason to his madness. As he says, he’s like “a dog chasing cars,” with little regard for the outcome. Except, that he has a very real and brilliant scheme to turn even the brightest hope into the darkest adversary. Ledger is a pretty standard villain in the first half but then transforms into such a state of lunacy and freewheeling dementia, that he actually has a heart, as cold as it may be. The story might be Harvey Dent’s arc, but it’s the Joker’s flood.
Pulling the film in every direction, Nolan must be commended for a superb job. Though, years from now, I’m confident that film schools will study the way picture editing and music score told this story. Lee Smith’s pace of tone and cutting, is operatic. It’s complemented by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s minimalist score. There’s no fanfare, no orchestrics, it’s a subtle but fascinating musical bed. Almost as if Brian Eno and John Cage got hold of the chamber. And from the first, mesmerizing sequence, the editing and score keep you captivated. Hold on tight, because The Dark Night is 150 relentless minutes. Pure tension from beginning to end.
Ultimately, the film is about decisions people make between love and mission. It’s a film about tension, in all forms. The Batman saga has always been about duality, but never has it been so fully developed or magnificent. There’s one more Christian Bale commitment for a Batman film. I would agree with some by saying that I don’t think we need it.