Friday, July 18, 2008

From the Archive: "The Dark Knight" Film Review

Film Rating: A+

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “The Dark Knight.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“The Dark Knight”
Originally published July 18th, 2008

In Batman Begins, we learned how Bruce Wayne became Batman, and why.  He dresses up like a bat so that he strike fear into the hearts of his enemies; it is his best weapon.  The central theme of the film was fear.  In The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan and his team also use fear, but in a very different way.  Fear is not on the minds of the characters.  It’s on the mind of the audience; from start to finish, Dark Knight finds new ways to terrorize the audience.  If you want to watch this film, be warned; it is terrifying.  Because of the nature of the plot and the villain, and the way this plot is executed, the film is simply unrelenting.  There are moments when you can’t catch your breath due to the deep fear it strikes into your heart.  This movie transcends “dark.”  Tim Burton’s Batman is dark.  Batman Begins is dark.  The Dark Knight is black; it forces you into the depths of insanity and holds you there, with only brief moments to catch your breath. 

And if you can handle it, then you’ll experience one of the deepest, most complex and finely crafted films in years.  It goes without saying that The Dark Knight is the best film of the year; the statement that is harder to swallow, but equally true, is that it’s also the best film in years.  It also seems to go without saying that it’s the best superhero movie of all time, but I can’t justifiably make that statement.  Why?  Because it’s not a superhero movie.  Batman is not a superhero.  Christopher Nolan is the first director to truly understand this, and the film reflects that in many ways.

It is possible that I have never been more excited for a film than I was for The Dark Knight.  I tried to keep my expectations in check, but I couldn’t.  When the lights dimmed in the theater, my heart was racing with excitement.  Every time I’ve been this excited for a movie, I am inevitably disappointed, if not completely, than at least in some small ways.  To say that watching Dark Knight was a new movie-going experience for me would be an understatement.  I had expectations that were seemingly impossible, and the film shatters them. 

The character everyone has on their minds is, of course, The Joker, as portrayed by the late Heath Ledger.  Just from the trailers you could tell it would be a spectacular performance.  Reviews calling the role Oscar-worthy just increased the hype around the character.  And after seeing the film, I honestly don’t know how to sum the performance up in words.  But I’ll try my best.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is the most effective screen villain I’ve ever seen.  Period.  Last year, Javier Bardem shocked audiences with his unrelenting portrayal of villai Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.  That character was the epitome of evil, and is similar to the Joker in that he had no back story; he was just a terrifying force of nature.  If you’ve seen No Country, you know what I’m talking about.  Now take Chigurh and increase the intensity by 1000, and you’ve got something close to the Joker.  It’s terrifying just to think about.

Heath Ledger has created one of the most memorable screen characters of all time.  The Joker has no back story; he just appears, doing everything in his power to destroy Gotham.  He is evil incarnate, and he has a sick sense of humor.  Whenever he appears on screen, prepare to be deeply disturbed.  Wisely, the character isn’t actually in the movie as much as you’d think.  There will be a scene with the Joker, and then we won’t see him again for long stretches of time.  But those scenes he is present in are so disturbing and horrifying that his presence lingers over the whole movie.  If he had any more scenes, it would be overkill, and not as terrifying.

Sometimes, you will laugh at him, and then feel bad for doing so.  There’s a scene where he threatens Rachel Dawes with a knife, as seen in the trailer.  He starts telling her a story about his scars (one of a few different stories he has about them), and Heath Ledger throws himself so completely into the character that it feels as though the Joker might jump off screen and cut your throat.  When the sequence is over, I for one, was relieved; I needed a break. 

Heath Ledger deserves a posthumous Oscar; if he doesn’t win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, it will be injustice on the highest level.  His performance is more engrossing than every Oscar-winner last year, including Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem.  While watching the movie, it’s easy to forget he’s gone and just watch the performance.  But when the credits role, and you see a dedication to him by the filmmakers, it hits you; this talent will never be seen again.  It’s devastating. 

The Joker is easy to single out for praise, but the rest of the cast is excellent.  Christian Bale proves that he is far and away the best actor to don the cowl, and proves that he is one of the better actors of this generation.  Michael Caine is again excellent as Alfred, as is Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox.  Gary Oldman is a terrific Commissioner Gordon, who gets a lot to do in this movie.  Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent proves to be inspired casting; he’s great as the D.A. and as, later on, Two-Face.  Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over the role of Rachel Dawes from Katie Holmes; Holmes was simply awful in Batman Begins, but Gyllenhaal is terrific.  Rachel has a more important role to play this time around, and if Holmes had played the role, the movie might just have fallen apart. 

But good performances don’t make me love this movie.  The real power comes from the amazing script by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan.  They understand Batman better than anyone, perhaps.  What they’ve done with the characters seems revolutionary, but really, all they’ve done is delve into the most classic interpretations and present the key components of the characters.

The Joker’s goal in this movie is simple; he wants to prove that anyone, even heroes, can be brought down to his level (this is taken from the Alan Moore graphic-novel The Killing Joke).  Batman, Gordon, and Harvey Dent are working to clean up the city.  Dent is the city’s White Knight, a symbol of good to a people who have constantly been terrorized.  Dent is so effective, in fact, that Bruce Wayne contemplates going back to his old life, and giving up Batman.  The Joker prevents this. 

I suppose everyone reading this knows that Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face; if you don’t want to know anything about that plot point, skip down a few paragraphs.  The Joker creates Two-Face, and Harvey Dent becomes a murderous vigilante, proving the Joker’s theory that anyone can be brought down to the level of criminal.

This is a classic portrayal of the Joker, and as far as I’m concerned, if they had done it in any other way they would have been wrong.  Two-Face is introduced late in the film, and if Harvey’s scarring hadn’t all been a part of the Joker’s plan, the character would have ended up being like Venom in Spider-Man 3; worthless.  Instead, his presence and character arc add a resonance to the story that is crucial; without his plot arc, the film would end up feeling empty. 

The Dark Knight defines Batman, and heroes in general, in many ways.  The ultimate message is that a hero is not necessarily someone people love; instead, it shows us that heroes are the ones in the shadows, sometimes even being the ones we despise.  The film is rich with characters (it’s certainly an ensemble piece, a rarity in summer cinema) but never loses focus on Bruce Wayne.  The plot is dark and complex, and you get a similar vibe as you would watching The Godfather.  It’s not a story; it’s a saga.  The amount of material packed into the 2 and a half hours is incredible; and yet, it’s a fast 150 minutes.

The cinematography is simply astounding.  Multiple sequences were shot with IMAX cameras, and I was fortunate enough to view the film in IMAX.  I had to buy my ticket a week early and get their over an hour ahead of time, but boy is it worth it.  The sequences shot in IMAX are breathtaking; all wide-shots of the city are shot in IMAX, and the clarity, detail, and size make you feel like you are flying.  The film constantly switches from a 2.35:1 aspect ratio to the full IMAX screen, and when it does, it is mesmerizing.  I would definitely recommend seeing it in IMAX, though the only IMAX theater in Denver is sold out all weekend.  The film is of course playing in 35mm, and if you just can’t wait, see it that way.  However you witness it, this is a masterpiece.

The Dark Knight is not a film for everyone.  If you like you’re movies light and fun, then go see Mamma Mia.  This film is dark as night, and terrifying to boot.  But if that sounds like your style, or if you just like crime dramas, then you will be amazed.  And Batman fans will be in heaven.  However, due to the dark nature of the film, I strongly, strongly recommend that children under 10 do not see this film.  It really should have been rated R for disturbing content; there’s no gore, but it really gets under your skin.  Show the kids the movie on DVD when they’re older, and they’ll probably thank you for waiting.    

Writing about this movie has been difficult; it’s hard to sum it up in words.  I could probably gush vocally for hours about various things I enjoyed.  This is a year where we’re constantly seeing phenomenal pictures, and The Dark Knight tops them all.  Heath Ledger deserves Best Supporting Actor, Christopher Nolan deserves Best Director, and the film deserves Best Picture consideration.

And as a Batman fan, it was a miracle.  To see a filmmaker delve so deeply into the psyche of not just Bruce, but a host of favorite characters, was a remarkable experience.  Batman Begins was the movie that introduced us to the troubled mind of the character, and showed us why he dresses like a bat.  It established that Batman is a symbol, not a man.  The Dark Knight takes it a step further; it defines what Batman is, and what he means.  He’s not a hero.  He’s a Dark Knight.

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