The Dark Knight is a good movie.
It has all the ingredients to be a great movie, but it isn't one. I may grudgingly put it on my best-ten-of-the year list (a paltry group at this point), but it could have been so much more. It came so close.
One knows the action in The Dark Knight will be cranked up, especially since director/writer Christopher Nolan's action sequences came under criticism in Batman Begins (2005).
One also knows that, because The Dark Knight has a striking cast, the acting will be memorable. Both wily veterans Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in the same movie as Batman's helpers is enough to give the movie a lot of substantial class.
Christian Bale, who trained in martial arts, is back as Bruce Wayne/Batman. His choice to speak in a Clint Eastwood low growl as Batman is odd but OK. He makes a polished Bruce Wayne and a buffed Batman.
The romantic interest Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes takes a step up in The Dark Knight. In Batman Begins, Dawes was played by cute Katie Holmes. In The Dark Knight she has more emotional substance as played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal's emotionality is crucial in The Dark Knight.
Aaron Eckhart is the vulnerable white knight District Attorney Harvey Dent. One of the best performances in The Dark Knight is by Gary Oldman as Police Lt. Jim Gordon. Oldman, who often gobbles scenery, gives a low-key performance that is very effective amidst the bombast.
Adding further quality performances are Eric Roberts, Gillian Murphy and Anthony Michael Hall.
Since the rest of the cast is eminently able, it comes down to Heath Ledger as The Joker. If he gives an acceptable performance, The Dark Knight should prevail.
In 1989 in Tim Burton's Batman, Jack Nicholson seemed to play the ultimate card as The Joker. He was a masterly cartoon figure. Nicholson's performance seemed to retire the character forever.
What a challenge for Heath Ledger -- to get in the ring with iconic Jack. But Ledger knew something we didn't. He had found the heart of The Joker, which made him a human character, not just a cartoon. It was a damaged, black heart, but it was a human heart.
Ledger died in January in New York City, his death officially judged to be the result of an accidental prescription overdose. The recent talk about a possible Oscar nomination for Ledger as Best Supporting Actor may have seemed just based on sympathy, but it's not. Ledger is the leading candidate, because of the phenomenal performance he delivers.
Ledger's performance of The Joker as a snarky anarchist, a smoldering madman, is one of a kind. It will become a classic. It's a primer for great acting, especially Ledger's physical movements. He sidles and slides, ambles and erupts, muttering his psychotic dogma.
Fundamentally The Joker is a potent anarchist. The Dark Knight features a post 9/11 Batman. The Caped Crusader -- the Compassionate Conservative -- is pulled toward the dark side by the terrorist Joker. Goodness is losing its moral bearings. Power to do good becomes power to do anything.
Since The Dark Knight is a smorgasbord of delicious acting, why is The Dark Knight too often less satisfying than it should be? With powerful psychological underpinnings and a dazzling cast, why does The Dark Knight fizzle?
The major theme in The Dark Knight is duality, so it's no wonder the movie splits in two. One part is unpredictable, imaginative and powerful; the other part is patented, one-dimensional overkill.
When Christopher Nolan is serving his better cinematic angels, the movie is terrific. When he submits to his worst instincts, it's clumsy and almost trite. For about 15 minutes, Nolan misfires badly; he takes time out to play a video game on the screen, leaving his actors stranded.
The six major action sequences were filmed with IMAX cameras; the IMAX experience will be in IMAX DMR letterbox.
Christopher Nolan wrote The Dark Knight with his younger brother Jonathan, based on Bob Kane's characters. Nolan has always been more psychologist than story teller. Like fellow director/writer M. Night Shyamalan, Nolan lives in a parallel universe where unity and credibility don't matter.
Nolan's Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002), and The Prestige (2007) all were marked by inchoate conclusions. Impact faded. Nolan knows how to intrigue, but not how to satisfy. Once again actors have to struggle against gimmickry.
How many times can glass break? Again and again and again. In The Dark Knight the actors have to avoid the shattering plot. Partway through, Nolan brings the movie to a satisfying climax. Then he starts it up again. Mayhem ensues, and a satisfying conclusion is not to be.
The Dark Knight is an apt metaphor for our society. We want better. But it's not to be.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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