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The Dark Knight

Released: 2008

Genre: Action & Adventure

Runtime: 2 hr 31 min

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart

The Joker unleashes a wave of terror attacks on Gotham City. Heath Ledger won an Oscar for his anarchic interpretation of the villain.

Pure summer-movie bliss.

Review by: MiamiMovieCritic

Added: 8 years ago

Early last year, I was one of the poor saps unlucky enough to walk blindly into Michael Haneke's shot-for-shot remake of his own Funny Games. My friend and I thought we were in for an enjoyable evening of Grand Guignol, and what we got instead was a cinematic punch to the cock. The movie is strictly below-the-belt tedium and would be completely disposable if not for the performance at its center of Michael Pitt as one of a duo of prankish serial killers. It's a remarkably vivid portrayal of a nameless, motiveless, one-dimensional psychopath, and one of a handful of performances – along with Anthony Perkins in Psycho and Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet – that I can say truly scared me. Four short months later, I found another one.

In The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's exhilarating follow-up to/vast improvement of 2005's Batman Begins, the late Heath Ledger went for something go-for-broke iconic and succeeded beyond all expectation. His Joker looks as if he put on his face by blasting himself with Homer Simpson's shotgun makeup applicator. He has a habit of manically licking his chops, and tells elaborately gruesome fairy tales about how he received his scar of a smile. When he appears onscreen, whether casually hanging out the side of a truck or blowing up a hospital in a nurse's uniform, you can feel yourself leaving the theater and plopping down in the middle of a rock concert. This isn't just a great performance – it's a seismic pop-culture event.

And boy, is it scary. The reasons for this can partly be attributed to director Nolan for creating such a dark tone and writing such terrific dialogue with his brother Jonathan. But overwhelmingly the credit has to go to Ledger. In the first hour of The Dark Knight, we've seen the Joker drive a pencil into a goon's skull and slit open another man's mouth, but he's been more funny than frightening. Then comes the moment when Nolan stages the equivalent of a Jihadi terrorist video. The vigilante justice of the Caped Crusader has inspired a rash of crime-fighting amateurs (slyly portrayed as overweight fanboys by Nolan), and the Joker has kidnapped one of them. Behind the camera, Ledger's voice commands, "LOOK AT ME!" That voice is the stuff of irrational childhood fears, what Darth Vader would have sounded like if the Devil were hiding in his suit. It is simply terrifying, but Nolan is up to more than just creating a scary moment. The Joker's voice in that scene is a monstrous echo of the guttural whisper Batman (Christian Bale) uses, and it drives home the theme of the entire movie: Our enemies are just like us.

The Nolans have constructed a richly textured crime saga that makes the origin story of Batman Begins pale in comparison. Save for an action sequence in Hong Kong, the sequel is set entirely in Gotham City, and is structured as a Miltonian descent as the arch-villain spreads chaos and the lives of the city's white knights spin out of control. Batman is beginning to question the usefulness of escalation (the movie explicitly addresses the concept of "blowback"), and thinks he may have found his replacement in the form of the crusading district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Comparisons between Nolan's reboot of the franchise and Tim Burton's Gothic adaptations of the comic are few and far between, but The Dark Knight does share a key plot point with 1989's Batman: The Joker doesn't know that billionaire Bruce Wayne is the Caped Crusader, and his terrorist actions are motivated by a desire to "out" him. This means dire consequences for Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, in an emotional powerhouse of a performance), who was Wayne's childhood sweetheart and is now dating Dent, and for anyone else on the same side as Batman, including Lieut. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman).

Nolan has clearly drawn some of his inspiration from Michael Mann's Heat. The way he films the opening bank heist and later a chase in which Dent is being escorted by a SWAT team reminded me of the enormous visual achievements of that 1995 action masterpiece. But, at the risk of drawing the ire of the fans who ganged up on critics like David Edelstein and David Denby, I have to say that Nolan is no Tarantino when it comes to staging hand-to-hand combat. It's a minor quibble, but more than once Batman kicks and punches his way through a roomful of bad guys in the most unbelievable of ways. The rest is pure summer-movie bliss.

Dent's transformation into the murderous Two-Face turns out to be the most resonant aspect of the film. Take the shot in which we see Dent atop Bruce Wayne's penthouse with the left side of his face concealed in high-contrast shadow. This scene and others are a testament to Nolan's extraordinarily serious-minded approach to the material, and to his ability to elevate pulp fiction to the level of tragedy. (For those wondering about the fate of Harvey Two-Face, Nolan includes an insert shot of a coin in the final scene that leaves no room for ambiguity.) What we're left with is a sense of loss, both for the characters and for the young actor who embodied one of them so brilliantly. This was Heath Ledger's last completed film before he died of a drug overdose, and it truly was a "complete" performance.