Monday, July 21, 2008
Capsule Review: The Dark Knight
Movie: The Dark Knight
Director/Studio: Christopher Nolan / Warner Bros.
10 Word Review: The best antidote to the hype was seeing the movie.
Best Thing About It: The fact that it didn't end up letting me down. The pre-release hype, the obnoxiousness of some of its more hyperactive zealots (many of whom are at the moment busy vivisecting Keith Uhlich over at The House Next Door. I don't agree with very much in the review, but the sheer fuckheadedness of the commenters almost has me reversing my position), the creeping sense of obligation to love the thing before I'd ever seen it had all conspired to make me suspicious of this movie that I'd been anticipating since the first promotional images popped up on the internet, what, a year ago? Everybody needs to stop doing this. I'm already planning to temper myself re: Watchmen.
Anyway, that's not what's important now that I've actually seen the movie. And the movie is very good. Very, very good. When I walked out of the theater, the word that came to mind was "full." It's a full movie. A complete one. It paints to the edges. Christopher Nolan's Gotham is a fully functioning ecosystem populated by men and (few) women who have their own agendas and trajectories to follow, and The Dark Knight follows them all down their own particular avenues. As much as it's a Batman movie, it's a Harvey Dent movie too, as he struggles against the mob's infectious corruption and the Joker's unspeakable cruelty. It's Jim Gordon's movie too, as he goes to war with the Major Case Squad he has rather than the one he'd like. The Joker's less accessible, by design, but by virtue of Heath Ledger's performance he's the only thing you can look at, so in that way it's the Joker's movie, too.
I walked away incredibly satisfied by this movie. The story, about a Batman looking to a white knight district attorney to be the face of justice in the light of day, about what the criminal element does when it's pushed into a corner, about throwing your lot in with men you don't trust or understand on either side of the law...there's a lot to chew on. I walked away feeling like I got told a full story -- one that's part of a much bigger picture, sure, but a full story and not just a good excuse for a lot of chasing and killing.
The "best comic book movie ever" discussion is an interesting one, and I'm going to have to defer at least six months, until I've seen it on DVD. I was pretty happy with Batman Begins too, but in the last three years it's grown stale and forgettable in my mind. My current pick for best comic book movie ever, X2, was a movie that knocked me out initially, true, but it was when it endured and even blossomed on multiple viewings that it hit the top of the list.
Worst Thing About It: At two and a half hours, I was expecting the movie to drag, but I don't think it did. It held its own. My lack of interest in the Batman character, relative to how enthralled I was by the arcs for Dent and Gordon and the Joker, probably means this falls short of perfection as a Batman movie, but in the end, I didn't care about that. What bugged me the most was the occasional PG-13-ification of the film. We don't once see the Joker slice into anyone's face, despite this happening, offscreen, several times. For as much as you might say gore isn't necessary, you need to see the blood and guts of what Joker's doing to people, at least once. Worse, every time something bloody was pulled out of the frame, I'd get pulled out of the movie and start thinking about things like MPAA ratings and marketing meetings and how much less money the movie'd be making if it came in at an "R." It's weird, because you see what becomes of Harvey Dent's face, in detail, more than once. Did that use up all of The Dark Knight's capital with the MPAA? See, these are the things I don't need to be thinking about in the middle of a movie.
Best Performance: The surprising thing is that Heath Ledger had so much competition here. It's a strong ensemble -- Christian Bale's Batman might be the least impressive performance of the "name" stars, and he's not exactly a slouch. Maggie Gyllenhaal's kind of a non-starter, actually, but the trio of Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, and Gary Oldman are total knockouts. As I said before, the arcs that Dent and Gordon follow are as central to the story as Batman's, and Eckhart and Oldman are up to the challenges.
Ledger's something else entirely. In all the ramp-up to the movie, I started to wonder just how big he took the Joker. I was happily surprised to find out it wasn't that big. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's a fussy performance, but the Joker's a fussy character. A guy who would type out taunts to Batman onto playing cards and leave them all over town is a guy who sweats the details. Every twitch, every flick of the Joker's tongue or suppressed giggle or lurching step forward is dedicated to one of the major themes of the movie: the Joker as an instrument of chaos. It's a wild ride and, not to bring maudlin sentimentality into a review of a movie that doesn't need it, it's unspeakably sad that there isn't more where that came from.
Oscar Prospects: This'll probably be one of, if not the most hotly debated stories of the year. Just how well The Dark Knight will (and should) do at the Oscars, a place where superhero movies just don't show up. Ever. The Heath Ledger nomination seems set in stone, for good or ill. While I believe the Oscar buzz would have been there whether Heath had died or not, I think the fact that this will be the Academy's last chance to honor him makes him a more solid bet.
As for the rest of the movie...the sky could well be the limit. After the record-breaking weekend, great reviews, and rapturous word-of-mouth (for the most part), it's reasonable to expect this to be the year-end box-office champ. That doesn't always equate to awards, but it certainly makes a lot of people in Hollywood happy in the wallet area. Christopher Nolan is a Serious Filmmaker, too, and an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. Wally Pfister got a cinematography nomination for Batman Begins. Sound and Sound Effects nominations are locks (as should be visual effects and makeup, but those branches get weird sometimes). I could see this getting anywhere from one to eight nominations, and if it doesn't, the story will be that it should have.