****/**** Image B+ Sound A+ Extras B
starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Morgan Freeman
screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
directed by Christopher Nolan
by Walter Chaw It's the best American film of the year so far and likely to remain that way. Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is revelatory, visceral, grim stuff--a vision of the failure of our idealism before the inexorable tide of entropy, another masterpiece after last year's No Country for Old Men that as much as says that the only morality in the midst of chaos is chance. No coincidence that both films feature villains who let a coin-flip act as judge and jury. But what's adjudicated? What shape does the court take? The failure of reason is the great bogey of this modern day--and the inability to properly frame questions, much less ken answers, feeds this feeling of hopelessness. That widening gyre, it turns out, is a labyrinth, or an Escher print, illuminating a Sartrean paranoia of no hope for escape, no possibly of exit. Nolan's Gotham City is a beatification of Chicago: the city's glass and metal elevated into holy relic and presented in such grand, panoramic vistas that the little things done in spite of it or on its behalf seem like so many futile pittances--the dreamlife of mice in their sterile maze that is this sprawling microcosm of all of the miseries and suffering of the world.
There's not a moment of The Dark Knight that's fun, not one single ray of light in its thick running time that concedes to popular appreciation; am I going too far to say this might be the best American film since fellow sequel The Godfather Part II? Rolling that around on my tongue, I have to say it feels right. When DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) struggles to reassure his constituents that it's always darkest before dawn, the instinct isn't to rally behind him but to rage along with the doomsayers crying that it's worse now than it ever was. The dam's broken and you can't put the water back; and though it's not obviously an allegory for them, suddenly the film functions as stark reflection of our anxieties that we might be too late to save the planet, too uncertain of the terms to win the war. Urban terrorism is the obvious villain, personified in the terrifying ragman Joker (Heath Ledger), but the focus of The Dark Knight is on the fallout from fear (grieving opportunities and allies lost to good intentions), its thesis that as bad as things are, they can get a lot worse. Fast. The best films of the year to this point (all genre pieces, as it happens)--Cloverfield, WALL·E, and Hellboy II--are about gathering rosebuds before the coming storm: Their position is not only that the precious moments are all we have, but that they're enough. In The Dark Knight, they're not enough.
Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) hopes to pass his role as city protector on to avenging angel Dent so that he might have a chance at a traditional, domestic existence with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). He makes himself vulnerable by believing that a single man can affect positive change when there's no clear definition of victory, and he's punished for it in The Dark Knight with the systematic destruction of his idealism. The conclusion the film comes to is that the more we know, the less we can possibly hope to understand, with the moral centre of the picture, good cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), becoming complicit in a devil's bargain. Looking at where we are now, marooned in the middle of an incessant torrent of useless, contradictory information, what Wayne's alter-ego, vigilante Batman, offers the broken backs of Gotham is a common, tangible villain--a scapegoat, a martyr, a way to channel the chaos against a clear antagonist. Dent's other great line has something to do with either dying a hero or living long enough to see yourself become the villain. The savage, brutal nature of The Dark Knight has it that each of its main characters is tasked to undergo that particular crucible. While watching it, I felt exactly the way I did when, as a fifteen-year-old, I first read Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. It's not a literal adaptation of that graphic novel but a thematic one, extraordinarily potent material that preaches the gospel that all is, in fact, lost--that the bad guy is a representation of not evil, but the quintessence of what happens when nihilism is embraced as a moral code of conduct. Midway through, I realized that the picture was genuinely upsetting me, that I was actually terrified by the places it was allowing its Joker to go. Anything could happen--and does.
The Dark Knight is that rare film that doesn't appear to have any flaws. As an action picture, it's superior; as a drama, it's exemplary. The performances to a one are pitch-perfect; while the temptation is to zero in on Ledger's awesome turn, Eckhart's Dent is brinkmanship and Gyllenhaal currently claims the single most heartbreaking moment of 2008 cinema. A note about Ledger: Consider the inevitable bit where someone declares that the Joker is crazy, then consider the obvious responses and how Nolan and Ledger subvert our expectations while remaining completely true to the nature of insanity. This Joker isn't carnival sideshow, he's not Jack Nicholson crazy--this Joker is cross-the-street crazy. The glittering beauty of it is that the character is scary because his madness is born of sadness and possibility. Then you have Bale, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy in a tiny appearance resurrecting the first film's Scarecrow...and yet the picture, for all its craft, is only a masterpiece based on its mad adherence to this idea that hope is a luxury in the face of atrocity. Hope is weakness--the only possibility for victory is to hone your cynicism into sword and shield.
There's a car chase in the middle of the picture involving a semi (who knew that a cheap joke--an "S" spray-painted before "laughter" on the side of a truck--could be so effective?), a line of police cars, and the Batmobile that is kinetic and beautifully choreographed (less showy but just as great is an early bank heist that anybody who saw I Am Legend in IMAX is already familiar with)--and there are exchanges of razor-sharp dialogue delivered like poison pills. A scene in a police station at the 105-minute mark, though, is when I started getting that tingle I used to get when I went to the movies and stayed through to watch Back to the Future in consecutive screenings--and that tingle didn't go away for the next forty-five minutes. It's fun to play the game of how Ledger's death influenced the editing of the piece. Did it lead to fewer compromises in content? To the entire sequences without score? To the epic length (justified utterly)? To the fiend being front and centre for the last hour? Whatever the causes, the effects of The Dark Knight are subtle and powerful. It's rejuvenating, it renews the faith, and for all the melancholy of the piece, its single, ironic nugget of hope is that it makes you feel less lonesome for having someone else in the world this articulate, this courageous. Who's every bit as frightened as you are.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Because its destination is 16x9 displays, Warner's Blu-ray presentation of The Dark Knight crops the 1.44:1 IMAX footage to 1.78:1 while leaving the 35mm bulk intact at 2.40:1. This is an acceptable compromise, considering the alternative would be to jump back and forth between pillarboxing and letterboxing, thus sacrificing the screen-filling effect of the switch to IMAX. (There was a lot of superfluous headroom built into the IMAX compositions, anyway, in anticipation of the human eye going straight to the centre of the frame.) Scanned at 8k, the IMAX material is clear as crystal, if obviously not as vertigo-inducing as it was on the big screen. But as director Christopher Nolan says within the extras, his motive for shooting in IMAX was the format's clarity as opposed to its size--and that's something you can still appreciate at home, what with the rest of the picture looking significantly fuzzier on BD, owing to the inscrutable decision to use the electronically-processed IMAX blowup as the print source for the 35mm material. Even more noticeable than the toggling aspect ratio are the drop-offs in shadow detail and sudden spikes in picture noise. Fortunately, the attendant 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track is consistently irreproachable, uniting the disparate visuals in a symphony of controlled chaos. My home theatre may not have the firepower of an IMAX auditorium, yet I found this mix less muddy and more gut-punching than what I heard in one back in August. Perhaps best of all, Bruce's "Batman voice" here lacks the harsh Auto-Tune quality that occasionally invited titters from moviegoers and snark from pundits.
In lieu of a commentary, the first disc of this Two-Disc SE offers eighteen "Focus Points" (HD, DD 5.1) totalling 81 minutes that can either be viewed individually or incorporated into the film as a "white rabbit" feature, with a spinning gold CD icon serving as the click prompt. I'm kind of bummed that these featurettes "focus" on the stunts almost to the exclusion of any other subject, though as a camera geek I enjoyed all the IMAX porn, like an outtake in which the lightest IMAX camera, the MSM, proves too heavy yet for a SteadiCam rig, causing the operator to topple over. To the relief of the crew, the camera--one of four in the world--was fine; it wouldn't be until the centrepiece car chase through Chicago's "Lower Wacker" that they'd actually destroy the damn thing. I love how IMAX obliged shots that were "lovingly held" to maximize the effort of rigging up the cameras and get the most out of their 3-minute magazines, lending the applicable action sequences a delightful old-school tempo. There's also a great example of capitalizing on your limitations when Nolan incorporates a forced delay between two stages of the hospital demolition into the script by having the Joker's detonator briefly malfunction--such a perfect character beat I never would have guessed it wasn't premeditated.
The remaining supplements are on the second platter and comparatively lightweight. Behind the Story is an umbrella heading for two TV specials, "Batman Tech" (45 mins., 1080p, DD 5.1) and "Batman Unmasked: The Real Psychology of The Dark Knight" (46 mins., 1080p, DD 5.1). My problem with both pieces, which trot out a typical array of experts and film personnel, is that they reek of insecurity in their endeavour to ground the gadgets and psychology, respectively, of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in real-world precedents. Moreover, I hate that modern pop culture is so literalminded as to place a high premium on plausibility, while I'm 99% sure that knowing the Batsuit could stop bullets off camera, too, is not going to convert any of the haters, whose snotty disdain for the superhero genre is more a fashion statement than an issue of disbelief. Colour me enlightened, though, that Bruce Wayne fits the profile of young Teddy Roosevelt. Extras delivers six unabridged instalments of "Gotham Tonight" (47 mins., 1080i)--which are, not unlike The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, cute but strictly for obsessives (and they disappointingly don't include the breaking-news reports with Joker's ransom videos)--and step galleries showcasing concept art, poster art, production stills, and Phillis Lehmer's dazzling, disturbing Joker card designs. Three Trailers (1080p, Dolby Surround) and six TV spots round out the set. A bonus disc contains the now-requisite Digital Copy of the film. Originally published: December 1, 2008.