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THE DARK KNIGHT

26 July 2008

(Spoiler alert, obviously)

Tuesday night was the night I finally saw The Dark Knight. I went to a prepremiere with tickets graciously given to me by friend Tom, who won them at a radio show. It was at an IMAX theatre in Amsterdam and I wore the Joker costume I had been preparing for weeks. I was all shiny and pretty in make-up and people were surprised and dazzled by my appearance. Everyone else had just gone as their own normal selves, so the contrast could not have been bigger. I was completely in my element and sitting there in the theatre dressed up as the man himself made the experience all the more thrilling.

And thrilling it was! I've been childishly shouting for weeks now that The Dark Knight would be the best film ever, but now that I've seen it it's obviously time for a better analysis. First up, of course, that the movie did not disappoint. What a ride! It stands far above other superhero movies, as did Batman Begins, because of its desire to be more than just a popcorn blockbuster with lots of spectacle but ultimately nothing really important to tell. Where Batman Begins brought a tale of overcoming fear and then using it to expel the wickedness from a city rolled up in an origin story of a hero, The Dark Knight follows up on that in an interesting way. This time around, Batman is an established character and we see how his appearance has affected the city. Unfortunately, it's not all good. The mob has been bullied into a corner and in their struggle to survive, gives power to a force that can't be controlled. Worse is that the presence of Batman -an outlaw, an agent of good that nevertheless stands above the law- has legitimized other people's descents into vigilantism, inadvertently sanctioning a world where rules and laws are no longer absolute. Enter the Joker.

Introducing himself as 'an agent of chaos', Joker takes the philosophy Batman has injected into Gotham and takes it to the extreme of anarchy. His mission being nothing less than peeling away the layer of civilization in everyday people and destroying the 'little worlds people construct with all their little rules', he sets in motion an intricate series of events (ironically, he claims not to follow plans, which is an interesting seeming contradiction, considering Joker's meticulous strategems) that make the city spiral out of control. The lawful citizens of Gotham, represented by the pristine attorney Harvey Dent, are put in an ever-tightening vice, with only Batman -struggling himself with finding a balance between the rules and doing what must be done- in between to try to save everyone. The result is an intense psychological battle of ideals and ideas; an enthralling series of skirmishes between order and chaos; bureaucracy and anarchy. The three elements are perfectly represented by Batman, Joker and Dent and the outcome is far from predictable.

Aiding this out-of-the-ordinary theme and plot is the movie's structure and tone. Gotham has gotten a facelift and has never felt more realistic, more like an everyday city. There are suddenly daytime sequences aplenty and they make the movie feel more like a thriller than a gothic adventure. This rather realistic setting has the effect of transporting everything that is fantastic and unorthodox and scary to a psychological level. Despite the colourful and scary appearances of Joker and, later, Dent, the really frightening things are felt under the skin: the unnamed terror of losing control and of a faceless enemy that is impervious to any impulse of fear and pain and will not be stopped by anything. At the end of the movie, Joker states that his fight with Batman is what happens when an unstoppable force meets and immovable object. This precisely captures the tone: it's no longer about a crazy madman with a spooky costume performing crimes; but an almost abstract, philosophical horror that grips you without you even knowing it. And with that established, the daylight no longer brings any comfort. If anything, it makes it scarier when you know no time is safe.

The movie's structure, then, is another element used in an unexpected way to further the theme and message. Rather than the traditional superhero framework; The Dark Knight plays more like a war journal chronicling the various tactical moves of the Joker, with everyone reacting on it. There are innumerable narrative strands that run through this, of course, but the structure is fragmented, shattered into little arcs of crime. The same goes for the city: it's a smattering of different locations rather than a coherent landscape. Chaos, in other words. Everything being set in motion by the Joker further estranges the plot, since all other characters in the film are only reacting to his actions; struggling to keep up with the maddening pace and ploys. Despite Batman's relative depth; he is hereby reverted again to the familiar status as playing second fiddle to Joker, who is the dominant player in the epic. According to Nolan, however, this is another deliberate part of the movie's framework: allowing all the characters to run amok with their own agenda, but ultimately tying everything back together again, focusing at the very end on Batman once more with a conclusion that reaches beyond 'standing heroically on a skyscraper parapet and looking onto the moon'. It arguably works relatively well, but makes repeat viewing all but a necessity, to fully come to terms with its structure.

And so, everything in this movie points towards an unexpected depth and layering. If anything, gratuitous explosions and graphic violence notwithstanding, The Dark Knight underplays itself. Important events such as the murder of mob boss Lau (who up until that point has been a major player in the plot) happen casually off-screen without even so much as a sign that it's happening. It's up to the viewer to discover everything that's really taking place, because this is a movie that's not going to take you by the hand to show you the sights. The Joker himself remains the biggest mystery, as nothing is exposed of his origin or motivations. In a brilliant bit of storytelling, Joker gives a terrifying monologue about his cruel childhood and the way his face got so horribly disfigured, before slashing a victim to death. As a viewer, you can't help but feel torn between horror and pathos. Much later in the movie, a similar event takes place, but this time, Joker gives us a completely different story about his scars and his trauma, tearing down all our assumptions and emotions in one fell swoop. It's masterfully done and all up to the viewer to draw the right conclusions (I read the reviews of a few acclaimed movie journalists who had apparently bought into the Joker's first tale of abuse and carefully retold it in their articles, which says enough, I should think). Certainly, the movie has beautiful exposition of its themes through dialogue and action, but much of its depth is hidden; stashed away under layers of facepaint and burning Dollar bills. It's a sign of confidence and maturity, and one of being a great film that will get better and better the more you see and consider it.

Ironically, the most misplaced elements in the film are when Batman goes into action mode with one of his gadgets. Towards the end of the movie there's a scene where Batman has the ability to see through walls via sonar devices. It falls completely flat, both hurting the believability and insulting the maturity of the rest of the film. It's an unfortunate, perhaps obligatory lapse into Bond-ish gadgetery that is unnecessary in a movie that's all about the psychology of the characters. It's almost shameful that in a movie about Batman, all the things that make up his strengths and character come off as the fakest and most contrived elements. In all honesty, some of these things feel like they've been added to please the blockbuster crowd, but should have been omitted to keep with the mood of the film. They're not major grievances and there is fun to be had with ridiculous sonar vision sequences, but it still doesn't feel right.

A third movie in this glorious franchise might be uncertain, since Nolan has shown he won't make the same movie twice. But with Joker still alive and having spread an irreversible taint upon Gotham, there might not be much manoeuvring space left to create something that doesn't touch upon the same themes as The Dark Knight. And knowing Nolan; he isn't interested in a repeat offering. When viewed with his previous film -The Prestige- in memory, The Dark Knight is a vastly more curious affair. It's by far not as round, as complete, as absolute as The Prestige, instead daring to break the structures, the expectations of what a superhero movie can do. It might not always work in its favour, as emotional involvement with the lead characters is sometimes difficult due to the fragmented structure of the plot and perhaps the desire to tell too much in one movie; giving too little breathing room to the characters to react off each other. But as can be expected from a writer/director as smart as this, this chaos resonates perfectly with the theme of the film. Welcome to a world without rules.

Roderick.