Monday, August 4, 2008

The Dark Knight: A Second Opinion

I got a chance to see “The Dark Knight” again this weekend. And, unlike my first time (in Houston, in an IMAX theater, complete with awesome and visuals), I saw it the second time at the Majestic Theater in Wills Point, TX. It’s a tiny town in northeast Texas where there is one theater showing one movie at one time (7:30pm). The Majestic itself is a restored theater dating back at least 30 years. The floors were wooden with carpet down the aisles, the screen was set back, just behind a stage where local folks likely produce plays, and the walls were close. Heck, even a train roared through town during the film, rattling the walls and adding a bit of impromptu reality to the story on the screen.

But that is the point. Many folks who see The Dark Knight will see it in shiny movie multiplexes with cement floors and state-of-the-art sound systems and soundproofed walls keeping reality away for 150 minutes. But The Dark Knight is a film with the feel of the 1970s, both in tone and in its hues. It felt natural to see this brand-new film in a theater where The French Connection was shown. Or Dirty Harry. It was a little like going back in time. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and then questions arose about our own time.

This is a movie that asks us questions about our reality circa 2008. Don’t think I’m going to slip into some political discussion here. It’s been done elsewhere and everywhere. In fact, a fellow blogger from the UK has written his own review of The Dark Knight that asks some serious questions. Go on over and get another perspective from across the pond.

Suffice it to say that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, as they are, could not have been made in any other decade. They are distinctly post-9/11. As a historian, I enjoy watching old SF movies of the 1950s and seeing what they say about life in that decade when the Cold War was coldest. I wonder, in the present tense, which films will be the examples of life in this first decade of the 21st Century. I now have two candidates.

Seeing the film again, I got the chance to focus on the many nuances in the film. (BEWARE: SPOILERS abound).

A obvious one is this: The Joker robbed a bank. Plain and simple. How many superhero movies do you know of where the main villain just robbed a bank. Loved it.

In previous movie incarnations, I really got the sense that Bruce Wayne was the real guy and Batman was the mask. In this film (as in Begins), Christian Bale puts a firm answer to the question: which is the mask and which is the true self? Wayne is the mask and Bale lets you see it only for a fraction of the film, that being in the restaurant and at the fund-raiser. The rest of the time, even when he’s not in a mask, Bale is Batman. Bale is Batman when he and Alfred stitch up Batman’s wounds and when they are getting ballistics from a brick. He is Batman when he’s posing as a civilian in Hong Kong taking pictures. The one place where he’s conflicted is the short scenes with Rachel during the fundraiser. It’s the first chance you see Bale as Batman hoping he’ll have a chance to shed the Bat mantle but Rachel, just as in the first film, see through it. Bale/Batman knows the truth about himself: just watch him during the restaurant scene. He gets uncomfortable being Wayne. Another telling scene is in Begins when Wayne meets Rachel after he has swum in the fountain with the models. He doesn’t know who to be and tells her so. This, to me, is brilliant acting because you can see it on Bale’s face.

The Joker as mob boss. Certain adjectives come to mind when you read and see Joker in the comics: insane, sadistic, cunning. What Ledger brings to the role is vicious. There’s the scene, late in the movie, when Joker burns his half of the money, when he turns a knife on the Chechen and asks about loyalty. Joker says something like “Why don’t we cut you up in little pieces and feed you to your pooches and then we’ll see how loyal a hungry dog is.” There is so much redefinition of who Joker is in that one line. Joker in the comics is sophisticated. Ledger’s Joker is base, dirty, somewhat slimy. Joker the comics would never say “pooches” even though he’d likely still cut up the Chechen. But I got the impression that Ledger’s Joker really did cut that guy up. How else do you explain the fact that he had the dogs in the final showdown? Joker in Comics wouldn’t see the humor in it. Ledger’s Joker just doesn’t’ care. And that’s what makes Ledger’s Joker scary as hell. You just don’t know what he’s going to do.

Gordon’s tears. When confronting Two-Face at the end, there’s just enough light in the scene that you can tell Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon had started crying when he feared Two-Face would really shoot Gordon’s son. I caught it the first time around but it’s still impressive. And I don’t care whether or not Oldman did it himself or a prop person applied eye drops. For Christopher Nolan to go to that detail really made the scene.

Eckhart’s Dent: My favorite scene with Eckhart is still the scene when Dent is interrogating the captured Joker henchman. Eckhart lets Dent’s rage loose. It helped me buy Dent’s fall later in the film. And this time, I caught Dent’s manipulation with the coin. He said, “Heads you live, tails you die.” Of course it landed on heads. Loved it.

Gyllenhaal’s Rachel: Katie Holmes was not altogether bad in Batman Begins. But I don’t think she could have pulled out the convincing performance during Rachel’s death. Maggie’s voice is what did it. It broke because the character knew she was about to die. And she was scared. It came across and made the scene heartbreaking.

One final note: on my previous review of The Dark Knight, I was so enthralled that I felt like I didn’t want them to make Movie #3. I write 'them' because even if Nolan chooses not to make Movie #3, the suits will. You can feel it in your wallet. It’s just a matter of time. But I am now less reticent. Seeing the ending again, the great Oldman/Gordon voiceover, explaining to his son why Batman has to flee and why GPD has to chase him sets up Movie #3 on very dark ground. And, if Gordon followed through and blamed Dent’s murders on Batman, there is ample and fertile ground to plow.

It is here where Ledger, as an actor, will be missed. He took the Joker template and made it his own. But Joker survived the story. In Movie #3, he will be the elephant in the room. Along with all the other roles Ledger will never be able to fill, it would have been nice to see his take on Joker after three-plus years in Arkham.

I think the Joker still has something to say to us. It’ll be a different era when Movie #3 comes out. The earliest will likely be 2011, three years into the administration of the next president, a few months before the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. Depending on who the president is, the world will look different. Batman will be different, especially if he will have been hunted (or disappeared) for three-plus years. I’d almost like to see Nolan wait four years but that’s not economically feasible considering the boffo business The Dark Knight is churning. Movie #3 will arrive and I’ll echo what Jay over at the Noir Soapbox wrote: “…are we on our way to getting the first truly consistent film trilogy?”

I think so. I just wonder what it’s going to say about us.

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