Wednesday, July 23, 2008
The View from the Tank: The Dark Knight (2008)
This review, unlike my last, and unlike the film being reviewed, will hopefully not be too long.
I was mildy excited about The Dark Knight, and going out to see it on opening weekend at the Vista, waiting on the sidewalk with hundreds of other people, and handing my ticket to a guy dressed in a Batman outfit (with combat boots) helped create the feeling that I was in for something big -- or that perhaps I should have been feeling that way. Maybe, we thought, rushing to claim seats in the sold-out theater, this would be one of those Memorable Movie Moments (see, e.g., the first time I saw E.T., breaking down in tears as an eight-year old at Gandhi, seeing Tim Burton's Batman at 11:30 p.m. on opening night at Showcase Cinemas in Manchester, Connecticut, my parents suggesting that I might like a movie called Tron). At the same time, I felt like I should've been saying "Moo" as I shuffled along compliantly into the abattoir of the modern summer action blockbuster. I was a customer vector responding predictably and logically -- proving once again that if you invest in it, we will come. Pay lots of money for explosions and hype and actors and the target audience will make Pavlov proud. The Dark Knight had the added hook of supposedly being a very "deep" movie for a summer blockbuster; it was an action movie we could feel good about seeing.
I came out of the movie a bit stunned -- as if I had just been in a minor car accident, or perhaps avoided one by inches after squealing and skidding out of control. The relentless and merciless pace and noise of the movie -- the endless crashes, shootouts, dog attacks, knifings, huge explosions, and narrowly avoided huge explosions -- left my nerves completely jangled an shot. There is no getting around it: for all its purported "depth," this is a blow-em-up, shoot-em-up, smash-em-up movie, which happens to star an inspired Heath Ledger.
So a word about Ledger. His performance here as the Joker is, as you've heard everywhere, fantastic. His radiant performance lights up the film, which is otherwise often plodding and pedestrian. His outshining of all around him in the film works well for the role, as the Joker is a mad outsider, trying to bring others over to his view of the world, his merry, nihilistic destructive, murderous playfulness. No one quite gets him, just as none of the actors in this film seem to be acting in the same movie as Ledger. Ledger's sloppily applied make-up, his skin showing through, gives him an air of deep sadness -- he's not too far from those sad, cigarette smoking, stubbled hobo clowns -- and helps make him the most human Joker in the long and storied line of actors to have played this role.
Still, before we start getting into discussions of Oscars and deep psychology, let's step back for a second. This is still a movie based on superheroes and supervillains that were designed by their creators -- though they may have unwittingly been drawing on more deeply rooted archetypes -- to appeal to prepubescent boys, and to extract nickels or dimes from their allowance money. It hurts me a little to say this, as I am a longtime lover and fan of comics, but there is a good reason Hollywood loves superhero movies: they are a cheap way to generate emotion. The stakes are always high (e.g., the fate of the universe, the fate of the world, the fate of the city -- always hang in the balance). There are always explosions, and often cool vehicles and accessories, which are available for kids to purchase at stores near you. (I had to sigh when Batman's "Tumbler" reappeared in The Dark Knight, followed up by his Batpod motorcycle thing.)
The Dark Knight tries earnestly to be deep, but it cannot escape its origins: it's a kid's story. The opening shot is illustrative: the camera slowly zooms in on an anonymous-looking office building; it's a black steel and glass grid; it's the image of prosperous order. And then a window is blown out by one of the Joker's henchmen. The Joker is subverting the rules! He fights our rigid "order" and "stability". Get it? Later, Batman has the Joker strung up, upside down, from a building. As the Joker is hanging there from his feet, he starts babbling about how he and the Batman are not so different -- they're both misunderstood freaks, they both operate outside the regular set of rules (though Batman holds fast to certain fundamental rules). As he's going on about this, the camera, somewhat jarringly, rotates 180 degrees, so that the Joker is now right side up, though he's still hanging upside down. Get it? There is bit of the Joker in the Batman, and vice versa, up is down, down is up, good is sometimes bad, and bad is sometimes good. Someone in another review put it well: you get the sense that these purportedly deep themes were earnestly diagrammed on a white board by the makers of this movie, with many urgent arrows and lines illustrating the ersatz Hegelian themes of the film.
Also, Maggie Gyllenhal is a giant step up from Katie Holmes, Aaron Eckhart is great, and Gary Oldman seems a bit bewildered in this movie, though he does have kind of an idiotic part.
I've broken my promise, and the review has become too long for easy consumption. Kung Fu Panda remains king of 2008. 3 1/2 tentacles (out of five).
Update: I'm a little peeved that I didn't go ahead and publish my draft last night; after I wrote the draft of this, A.O. Scott put out a piece discussing many of the same themes of superhero fatigue. I'm not just aping him!