“Because Gotham gets the hero it deserves, but doesn’t need…” So says Commissioner Gordon about Harvey Dent, and inferentially about The Dark Knight himself. Certainly the best film of the summer, the latest installment of Batman is downright important film-making, downright wonderfully directed, acted and scored and downright fun.
I’m hard pressed to find flaws here and that’s rare in a film. You can always find something to grouse about. I couldn’t find anything here. The story is once again comic-book simple, but with nuance. Our hero finds himself beset by mobsters, gangsters (one played to the teeth by Eric Roberts) and henchmen wreaking so much havoc, that he fails to see the real villain, a monster who calls himself the Joker. By the time he does, he may as well be humming Steve Miller: “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you…” The you in this case could be Harvey Dent, the new District Attorney who represents a new home, a new light in Gotham and one by which The Dark Knight can remove the cowl, drape the cape and walk away as billionaire Bruce Wayne to be with Rachel Dawes.
One problem: Rachel loves Harvey Dent and Batman doesn’t know. Meanwhile, the joker’s crimes now begin to take precedence. Christian Bale’s performance is tight once again. I really think he is a fine actor. I’ve thought so since he did Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. But in Batman, he has found an acting calling, a kind of renaissance role in a series of films that avoid the campy and silly Tim Burton cliche’s of the first Batman movie, but still refuse to take themselves too seriously.
The supporting cast, though, doesn’t just phone it in. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhall, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman and, of course, the late Heath Ledger are all brilliant in their respective roles of Alfred the butler, Lucius Fox, the defacto head of Wayne Industries, Rachel Dawes, Harvey Dent, Commissioner Gordon and the Joker. All of them shine, but to ignore Ledger at this moment would be to ignore one of the real greased wheels that helps this film roll.
Strictly speaking, Ledger’s performance was electric. If the poor guy had lived, his stock would have shot through the roof. I’m fairly convinced that because of his untimely and sad death that he’ll get an Oscar nod for the role. But I’m just as convinced that had he lived he’d have deserved the nod indeed. Ledger’s Joker is without a doubt one of the most chilling and even terrifying roles I’ve ever seen played. At once ruthlessly cruel and a bit vulnerable, Ledger created a Joker that made Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Batman’s arch nemesis in the original Burton version look like amateur hour. Ledger never relents and even his voice, a kind of trademark baritone that the young actor was known for, takes on a new tenor with a Midwestern twang in it–pretty amazing for an Aussie-born actor and one of the best voice transformations I’ve seen since Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote.
The music in this film never overpowered, but it also wasn’t a background–at least not to me. It had an urgency to it that was raw, powerful and a bit unsettling. It left the viewer with a kind of mild caffeine rush as it builds majestically in the sweeping camera shots high above Gotham City but it also became very gritty, very focused and almost maniacally dance-able when the camera is in close or a fight scene is being shown.
This is no remake, of course. This is an entirely new and faithful interpretation of the DC Comic book The Dark Knight, brought into the flesh and blood world, made alive by a humanity that weaves into the film like a theme. Batman declares that sometimes, “people’s faith needs to be rewarded,” and as he tries to convince a much beset upon Harvey “Two-Face” Dent to do the right thing, he tells him that he “used to believe in people’s capacity for good…” It’s a fair statement and it’s given at just the right moment, when the infamous “Two Face” himself is about to cross over the line and ignore any goodness he has left.
These moments are all enhanced, of course, by the extraordinary special effects, the new toys that The Dark Knight gets to use and the absolutely riveting fight and chase scenes. This isn’t a film, it’s a total escape into a realm that is black and white and simple, while nuanced with the complexities of love, loyalty, friendship and madness. It’s an absolutely must-see movie with so much to offer that it’s hard to ignore. I’m still thinking about it–I know I’m going to dream about it and I’ll probably go and see it again.
This is the film, in short, that the public deserves–and needs.