Saturday, August 09, 2008

My Second Look at "The Dark Knight"

In a Zap2it story yesterday, I wrote about the strong first day for "Pineapple Express" and the likelihood that the three week reign atop the box office for "The Dark Knight" was probably over. I may have been incorrect, as Christopher Nolan's film may have moved into the lead on Friday (there's some disagreement) and will probably make $25+ million again this weekend.

I contributed to that total, plunking down money for the first time to see "The Dark Knight" for a second time (I think that makes sense). I don't usually see movies twice in theaters. On DVD, sure. But I'm not sure I've seen a movie twice in the theaters since "Brick" and "Brokeback Mountain."

I've already given "The Dark Knight" the 2000-word treatment with the basic conclusion that it was the year's best film to date and probably the best comic book movie ever.

Some thoughts on a second viewing are after the bump... Since this isn't a review, I'm going to treat those comments like they're being written for somebody who has seen the movie, so there will be spoilers galore.

Click through...

So anyway, my thoughts upon revisitation...

It Is What I Thought It Was: I gave "The Dark Knight" an "86" on the Fien Print scale and then had to justify my overall scoring system to at least one commenter. Having rewatched the movie, I'm convinced that my numerical score was *exactly* right. By my scoring system, "The Dark Knight" got what it deserved. Watched for the very purpose of magnifying strengths and weaknesses, "The Dark Knight" is still far-and-away the year's best movie and I'll remove any hesitation I might have had: It's the best comic book movie ever made. Period. End scene.

Heath Ledger May Be Better Than I'd Thought: While there has been moderate backlash very slowly building against "The Dark Knight," beyond one infantile op-ed in the Los Angeles Times suggesting that given him an Oscar nomination would celebrate his lifestyle and send a bad message, nobody has backlashed on Heath Ledger. The performance was actually better than I remembered, with several key scenes standing out even better than before. I love Joker's inferiority complex at his first meeting with the crimelords, specifically when they attempt to minimize him and call him a freak. I could probably watch the Central Booking interrogation scenes on a loop, for his interactions with both Gary Oldman and Batman. And then the whole sequence in the nurse's uniform, culminating in his disappointment and hilarious confusion at the hospital only half-exploding, is both chilling and comedically brilliant. Mentioning those three scenes leaves out Joker's interaction with Bruce Wayne's fund raising friends, his semi-suicidal standoff with the BatCycle and the brilliant throwaway shot of Joker sticking his head out the window of the car escaping central booking.

The Plot Is Tighter Than I Thought: I have at least one friend who has accused me of overhyping the movie in the weeks before its release, leading to disappointment on his part. His main complaint was that the movie's plot is pretty loose and it's mostly just three interlocking character arcs without much of a narrative. I don't think that's true if you assume that The Joker's comment about just being a mad dog chasing a car is as much of a lie as his two, nearly three, different explanations for his scars. I think you have to assume that although the Joker is disappointed in the results of the two barges, everything else in the movie, even when it appears to be a failure for him, is a total success. He obviously wanted Rachel to die, not Dent. He obviously wanted the hospital destroyed more than he wanted the one Wayne Industries worker killed. His whole dalliance with the Mob was just a way to stir up that hornet's nest around Dent, the man poking his hand around the stinging insects. He wanted Dent brought down and Batman brought down to his level, the playing field in Gotham City totally equalized. In that light, with the Joker as a puppetmaster, every aspect of the plot actually builds very consciously. My major concern is that it builds to a third movie that we'll never see, because it builds to a third movie that features The Joker and requires some level of resolution beyond The Joker dangling from a building. I suspect that a third movie could include a computer generated shot of The Joker sitting in Arkham Asylum, but given just how easily escapable Arkham Asylum has always proven to be, it's doubtful that we'd be satisfied with that resolution.

Who Says the Action Scenes Aren't Coherent? One common complaint among the movie's few naysayers is that Christopher Nolan isn't an action director. I can't necessarily argue with that, but I also saw a couple complaints that the action sequences are incoherent, poorly edited together. I'm not sure there. I was never spatially confused for a second rewatching the movie. But no, the movie doesn't live in its action scenes, so much as its set-pieces. There isn't an ultra-memorable fight scene, but there are several memorable extended set-pieces that include action. Again... no real complaints on that front.

Three Things That Don't Fully Work For Me: The movie becomes ultra complex in its second half and some of the twists and turns aren't necessarily as effective as they ought to be.

The Mole in Gordon's Unit: Ramirez is immediately suspect and I hadn't remembered that there are at least two lines of planted dialogue mentioning her ailing mother in the hospital. The logic of her betrayal still falls flat for me, particularly after the confusing scene with Berg, the other cop who has a relative in the hospital. It's unnecessary complication to expect that this random officer would be willing to off Reese, much less that he'd be able to find himself in the car with the guy. So he ends up being both a red herring and yet not a red herring. All it does is makes me scratch my head.

The Two Barges: I get the point of the two barges, both in terms of what the Joker is hoping to do and how the choices on the barges play out dramatically. It still doesn't fully work for me. The sequence takes too long to develop and then the way it develops plays just for simple irony. The upstanding citizens are conflicted, become animals and then chicken out. The convicts are already animals, seem prepared to validate their positions as animals and then the one cross-eyed tattooed convict throws the detonator out the window. Other than irony -- morals where none are expected and immorality where morality would be expected -- is there a reason why the characters make the choices they make? If we had previously met the cross-eyed prisoner in some meaningful way and there was a backstory for his choice, it might play better. Ditto with the civilian who's finally unable to turn the key. Instead? It just doesn't play as well as it should.

Harvey Dent's Fall: There is at least one line of dialogue early in the movie in which the mayor explains to Harvey that his ability to prosecute the mobsters hangs entirely on his moral rectitude and that any indictments he gets might rise or fall on his remaining pure. This over-literalizes the idea that Gotham City has its Dark Knight, but also needs its White Knight. I think I might have liked to see just a little bit more on what Dent means to the city versus what Batman means and why it's so essential that Batman takes the fall to prevent the sullying of Dent's image. As it stands, the blood on Dent's hands isn't quite dark enough for me. He killed a couple crooked cops and the driver for a mob boss? That's not so bad. He goes that extra step too far putting Gordon's family in jeopardy, but I don't see why a selective truth wasn't an alternative. What I'm saying is that Dent's fall is far, but not far enough for it to send Batman off into exile.

Oscars? Ledger's nomination seems like a foregone conclusion. Again, I'm not going to predict a win with four months of movies still to come, but he's the frontrunner. Figure the movie for a slew of technical nominations -- editing, cinematography, two sound editing categories, etc. It's my opinion, one I've shared with several people, that if "The Dark Knight" passes $500 million at the domestic box office, it will also get a best picture nomination. We would have to have a hell of a high-quality autumn and winter for it not to deserve that honor. Meanwhile, "The Dark Knight" continues to hold down the status as the best movie of all-time, according to IMDB users. That's a little crazy. But we *are* talking about IMDB users here.


  1. I just saw "The Dark Knight" for the second time myself and have to say that I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. My only complaint would be that it took me both viewings to put all the minute plot points together. Don't get me wrong, the story totally worked the first time around, but I too missed the dropped hints about Ramirez and some other "detail" lines that got lost in the action and dialogue.
    I will say that the "throw away" shot you mentioned of the Joker with his head out the cop car window is one of my favorite shots of the whole movie...brilliant! And for me, the best scene of the movie is a toss up between the Joker with the crime leaders scene and the Joker interrogation scene.
    Anyway, as far as I'm concerned this movie has it all and I'm glad that "Backlash and The Contrarians" have, for the most part, remained underground! Lol!

    P.S. Dan...I see you still haven't reviewed the X-Files movie...wait another week and it may not be in theaters!

  2. I'm also a two-timer (as in seen the film twice) but I'm coming at this as someone who was underwhelmed by the film and a little bothered at the pass the film has received from the higher levels of the blog-o-sphere (I expected the frothing and furor from the fanboys). I think the film’s a pretty remarkable achievement simply for the level of ambition and some of the directions Nolan takes the material in (no one could ever accuse the filmmaker of phoning it in) but there’s a multitude of issues that I don’t even see you addressing here that, for me, resulted in a film that doesn’t really work. For instance…

    Nolan is a teller not a shower.

    A real problem throughout his career (rewatch Memento. 80% of it is exposition being explained more or less directly to the camera) that he’s managed to brush over through clever editing and strong performances but here (not coincidentally his most linear film to date) it results in scene after scene of characters (most of the time Eckhart) explaining every single theme, idea, concept, game theory and plot point to the viewer. The scene 25 minutes in involving Bruce and his date crashing Rachel and Harvey’s is perhaps the most egregious example of this, so much so you half expect the word “THEME” to flash across the screen. This also ties into the fact that…

    The film treats its characters like chess pieces.

    The characters in the film are a slave to the big, meaty ideas TDK is predominantly interested in. Which is why we end up with Dent going on a kill-crazy rampage after one pep talk from the Joker. Because we have to arrive at a conclusion where Dent’s holding a gun to Gordon’s kid’s head even though he’s fully aware and lucid of how the boy is innocent. Because we have to arrive at a conclusion where Batman has to take the fall for Dent because we have to pay off the idea of Batman being the dark knight to Dent’s white one, even though 30 seconds thought could have come up with a scenario where he’s not being chased by a mob and Dent's rep is intact. It’s why the film throws an 11th hour nod to the Patriot Act into the mix just in case the allusions to the war on terror hadn’t been explicit enough. I love that the film’s actually about something other than some shiny new special effects but not when they become the be all end all.

    75% of the film revolves around characters we don’t care about.

    Let’s see we get 2 barges filled with a bunch of civilians and convicts who we’ve just met and the agonizing choice they have to make which makes for lovely academic fodder but if they all go up in smoke it really means nothing dramatically. We also get Reese, a character who’s been established simply as a corporate weasel having his life threatened in a 10 minute subplot that amounts to “Joker needs a distraction.” We get Gordon’s precocious young son being threatened by Dent when we have nothing invested in the character other than he’s a cute kid (how about throwing the comic book geeks a bone and at least make it Gordon’s daughter, Barbara?). We get a subplot involving Batman traveling to China to retrieve a mob accountant who is not only just a plot device but whose ultimate fate is in a blink and you miss it long shot. And we get a bus-full of reporters and doctors being held hostage who are notable only for including in their ranks the kid who had his butt-cheeks taped together from The Breakfast Club. Hell, we even get Dent threatening the life of one of one of Joker’s cronies. Any one of these might work in the film but the cumulative effect is one of thumb-twiddling as no real time is spent in building up an emotional investment with these people, so their collective fates are only important in how they progress the plot.

    The film is prosaic looking and often poorly directed.

    I’m starting to think they employed the IMAX gimmick simply to give people *something* to talk about visually because this is one flat-looking summer blockbuster. By my count (and this is strictly one guy’s opinion) there are exactly two memorable shots in the entire film. The first is the much alluded to shot of Joker in the cop car and the other is of the semi-flipping, and that bit is pretty much stolen from Empire Strikes Back. Beyond that, Nolan is a fan of long takes shot in medium wide where the primary emphasis appears to be allowing the actors room to play which is great if you’re watching an Altman film but, here creates scenes that are laden and drag on endlessly.

    More egregious though is how many scenes Nolan muffs through shot choice. I’m talking the death of Cabal which doesn’t make any sense as shot. I’m also talking about the death of the Chinese accountant, Batman’s reveal at Wayne’s party (there’s an alternate take in the trailer which plays much better) and most annoying of all, the film’s climax at the construction site which if memory serves fails to establish takes place a) that the characters are on the upper levels of a building and b) how high up they are so when Batman jumps into action to save Gordon’s son it’s confusing why he’s now hanging onto a ledge while Dent is dead several stories below.

    Maggie and Christian have no chemistry.

    Again, a judgment call but I find the casting of Gyllenhaal pretty disastrous here, perhaps even more troubling than Holmes in the first film. Katie may be a piss poor lawyer but at least there’s a school girl quality to her that makes her flirtation with Bale somewhat believable. But Maggie is a cold fish and her scenes with Christian, which are in theory the emotional undercurrent for his character play like an eight-year-old who has a crush on his teacher and doesn’t realize that she’s just not that into him. Her death, which should be achingly tragic for both the characters in the film and the audience, instead plays like a cruel joke, blowing her up real good mid-pithy expression. Once she’s gone she’s barely missed.

    I have other problems, but you get the point by now. I’d still probably fall on the “recommend” side of things, since films this ambitious and brainy don’t exactly come out every week but I do think the flames should be dampened a bit.

    Also sorry for the length of this post. Guess this would have been better suited to my own (under-nourished) blog.

  3. Anonymous2:40 PM

    I've seen it four times and it is full of awesome. If it has a flaw (which it doesn't) it's that it's a morality tale too in love with talking through its own morality. I personally credit that as a feature, as opposed to a bug.

    Also, the truck flipping over is badass. Lucas WISHES that his AT-AT flipped end over end. (Maybe in the Extra-Special Edition in 2017.)

  4. Daniel: "What I'm saying is that Dent's fall is far, but not far enough for it to send Batman off into exile."
    I think the ending of Batman having to be cast in exile is an unpopular, but excellent choice for the ending. Throughout the movie, Joker is drunk with conviction of Batman revealing his true identity, and knowing that Batman is allies with the Gotham police, he can force Batman's hand through violence against innocent people. Batman first chooses to give in to Joker's demands, and reveal his identity, only to see Harvey take the fall, in order to capture Joker. In the end, Batman realizes the criminals know he has rules (namely, not to kill), and would rather be seen as a rogue vigilante, an isolated force with no allies, than to put the people of Gotham in danger. Now a vigilante, it would deter copycats from following his footsteps, and the remaining criminals would know that Batman has become one of them. Only his desire is not money or power, but to rid Gotham of crime, no matter at what cost.