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Saturday, 2 August 2008

Review: The Dark Knight, or, Ledger Domain

The Dark Knight, in a very short time, has moved from being a much-anticipated sequel in an ongoing graphic novel franchise, rebooted by clever director Christopher Nolan, to becoming one of the most impressively-received film products of the last twenty years. Already, it is on track to become one of the most profitable movies ever. But that's just money (as the Joker might say) - and this movie has also, already, received critical plaudits galore. There is talk of the deceased Heath Ledger getting a posthumous Oscar; and The Dark Knight is greeted, in some circles, as the actioner equivalent of Citizen Kane - perhaps the "finest" ever entertainment film.

Turning to Ledger, and his Joker - how good is he? Well, Nolan's curious mix of sterile and shaky mis-en-scene, recalling Kubrick, Mann, as well as The French Connection (and of course the recent gleaming Asian cop thrillers like Infernal Affairs), creates a refreshingly all-too-human villainy. Ledger's Joker is always vulnerable (he seems to possess no actual physical powers, and precious few mental ones) - propelled forward, apparently, under the steam simply of his own mania. His method truly is his madness. Ledger's acting is corporeal, visceral, and (whether hunched or dancing a demonic jig) always charismatic; at times, his tortured face, and physicality recalled a young Brando. I fear we have lost a young actor of potential genius. The vocalisation of The Joker is, perhaps, another thing - at times, he sounds like a warped Al Franken, the SNL comedian.

The character of The Joker, and his purpose, are a little pretentious, to be sure. Claiming to be acting beyond good and evil, in order to test the limits of systems, and order, to create "chaos", he is really a dimestore late 19th century nihilist - someone out of Dostoyevsky, or Ecce Homo. Then again, the Situationist burning of the money (actually borrowed from The Idiot as a trope) could place his villainy in a later, more post-modern mode of conceptual or performance art. Indeed, The Joker, as conceived by the Nolan Brothers, is basically a cliche - the sociopath-as-outsider-artist. The threat to Gotham is not an allegory for Islamofascism, but instead, good old fashioned Western existentialism. Nothing The Joker, or the film, says, would have shocked Kafka. God is dead, and the law is, to say the least, compromised. Further, all the ideas and images associated with masks, doubles, dual-identities - well, all Gothic (in Gotham) - so let us say The Dark Knight is about as modern as Poe. Or perhaps Baudelaire, who knew a thing or two about the corruption of morality, and the urban. All this to say, Nolan says nothing new about our lives, about evil. However, his film's pace and fluidity does manage to bring across a great sense of menace - and few cop or cartoon flicks have ever shot a city (Chicago) in such a contemporary way.

I found the Harvey Dent subplot a little dull; and, as much as I love the work of Gary Oldman, his Commissioner Gordon work here is very good, but not excellent. The Joker's mayhem, and sick little plots (easy to figure out once one realises they are all simply inversions, or mirror-images, of normal morality), all rest on a premise of dog-eat-dog - and fail when humans prove themselves capable of doing good. Therefore, the final idea of Batman as chased out - as necessary pariah (a sort of underground, inverted Christ) - hardly makes sense - the people of Gotham proved their essential goodness, and no doubt would have welcomed Batman back. Bruce Wayne may or may not enjoy his multiple Russian sex-partners and glamorous lifestyle - why does he refuse to openly assume the role of hero? Ah, because he needs to do things supra-heroic (and sometimes wicked).

Here, the film apes the neo-con line about extraordinary rendition, water-boarding, and other familiar tropes of the Bush era. Is America darkest before its dawn? The film's overlong, and ponderous ending, manages to leave The Joker, and the possibilities, hanging. Sadly, Ledger will not reprise the role, one I hope they will now retire. What next, The Riddler?

In conclusion, The Dark Knight is an advance on many other filmed entertainments, but is neither as unique, stylistically, or intellectually, as it appears. Still, it may be one of the best American crime films since The Departed, on which so much of it is based. It should be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture.
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