Posted: 07/16/2008


The Dark Knight


by Del Harvey

“You’ve changed things… forever.”

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People are dying to know – is the film really as good as they hope it will be? Is Heath Ledger’s performance as good as the hype? The answers are an unequivocal and resounding yes.

I’ve read a variety of reviews, spoken to a number of reviewers from newspapers, television, and the net, and have heard responses ranging from confusion over the “new take” on the Batman myth to unmitigated praise for the dark and “bold” direction Nolan and Ledger took with the character of The Joker. But they’re all missing the point.

In fact, Nolan may be the first director to accurately capture all the elements of one of our most well-known contemporary mythic characters. Batman is a grim, dark and serious individual hell-bent on a mission. Yes, for a while he was a detective, and for a while he had a “boy wonder” to aid him in his crusade. But before, in between, and ever after, Batman is The Dark Knight; just this side of vigilante, a masked defender who will do what must be done when no one else will do it. Accordingly, it stands to reason that his arch-enemy should be the embodiment of evil, anarchy, and chaos. To successfully portray the strength of the dual Bruce Wayne/Batman character, there must be a polar opposite, and The Joker is that perfectly balanced madman.

One thing is certain in watching this film; Heath Ledger’s performance in this role is clearly deserving of an Oscar. And the Golden Globes, SAG honors, and any other acting awards that can possibly be given, whether or not it’s posthumous. In The Dark Knight, Ledger is an acting monster, a marauding powerhouse of thespian superiority; only he’s not just chewing up the scenery in that hammy, overbearing way that Nicholson has come to do in more recent years. Ledger puts on his character one garment at a time, and by the time he has smeared the mussed-up clown makeup on his face, he is not just giving a performance; he really is The Joker. He breathes the same air, lives in the same nightmare world, and carries the same dark dreams which helped to create his character. His laugh sounds real, maniacal, insane. When he tells another character the story of how he earned the horrible scars on either side of his mouth, we feel the same pathos and horrible fear as the character who is the brunt of his diatribe – just before he cuts a nice big smile on their face. Ledger’s work as an actor is so superior that it is difficult to remember the last really great acting performance prior to his. And that is the beauty of a well-crafted villain. Ledger and Nolan recognized this, and each put their heart and soul into this character, and it paid off in a lasting tribute to a superbly talented actor.

As to the “bold” new direction in which they have taken Batman’s story, the truth is this angle is not so bold for anyone who knows the comic books. Batman, in the original comic, was little more than a vigilante. It took time for him to gain the trust of the people. Until then, he was a guy running around in a bat suit, and even his earliest outfit didn’t come close to the familiar costume we have come to associate with this character. Director/writer Christopher Nolan and his co-writing brother Jonathan deftly maneuver through the decades of Batman myth to fashion a superb re-telling of the story for the big screen. In some ways, their choices take us into territory recently visited in such Oscar-worthy films as There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men. This Batman is not the 60’s TV show, which really is what all those other films by Burton and Schumacher were styled after. This has shed the garishly bright colors and surface-level plots to instead offer a juggernaut of a story featuring a heavyweight dressed in dark battle garb. We are served imagery deftly and subtly imitative of both Frank Miller’s excellent rebirth story, The Dark Knight Returns, and the reworked saga of Batman: Year One, by Miller and David Mazzuchelli.

Like those very fine comic book tales, this Batman is conflicted by the very creature he has let loose upon the world, by what his image means to others, and by how imitative of his duality the criminal world is becoming. It leads to some very dark consequences for those he loves and trusts, and sends him down a very dark path, indeed.

But, as his faithful mentor character Alfred says at one point in the film (and in several trailers, in case you thought I was giving anything away), Batman must “endure.” As Alfred so aptly states, “He can be the outcast. He can make the choice no one else can make… the right choice.”

And that is exactly what Nolan, Bale, Ledger, and all the rest have done with this film. But be forewarned – do not go into this film expecting the happy, bright, colorful cartoon character… this is a grim, dark, and gripping nightmare fairy tale about a man whose choices have very real and very serious consequences for everyone he knows and loves. Which makes the story of The Dark Knight very rich, intricately textured, and most enjoyable, indeed.

Del Harvey is a co-founder of Film Monthly, a writer, filmmaker and film teacher in Chicago.

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