July 17, 2008

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The Dark Knight (PG-13)
Batman/Bruce Wayne becomes even more messed up and strange as life in Gotham gets even more bleak in The Dark Knight, a twisted sequel to the Batman reboot that is full of moral compromises and characters choosing between bad and worse.

And considering the very deep, dark places The Dark Knight goes to I’m a little surprised that the movie is only PG-13. The movie must have found just the right balance of limited swearing and one-step-below-too-much violence to secure its PG-13 rating. But, unlike this summer’s Indiana Jones movie (which felt like it had to make up reasons not to be PG), this PG-13 is definitely not for the faint of heart or the easily nightmared.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is more or less just where we left him, chasing bad guys and helping a suspicious police force clean up Gotham. But this isn’t a perfect world. The big bads, the mob as opposed to the mask-wearing nutcases, remain a step ahead of law enforcement. Copycat Batmen show up at crime scenes packing heat and poorly armored. The police force is still being eaten away from the inside by corruption. From atop the penthouse where he now lives (Wayne Manor having been burned down in the first movie), Bruce — and Alfred (Michael Caine) — contemplate the world Batman has created, one where every victory seems to come with a new problem.

One of those new problems is the Joker (Heath Ledger). Scarred at the mouth and further obscured by makeup, the Joker robs mob banks, showing no loyalty to anyone, even the men on his own crew. His aim appears to be as purely misanthropic as Batman’s is noble — he wants to destroy stuff, cause chaos. The aggressive policing of Gotham has led its criminal bosses to go to desperate measures to launder their money and, when that turns messy, they decide to take the Joker up on his offer to kill Batman as a way of ushering back the “good times.”

Except, of course, Batman isn’t the only one fighting evil any more. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the city’s new district attorney, has joined Lt. James Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) quest to bring down the mob. Harvey Dent appears to be the city’s one shining hope — a legitimate good guy who can show his face in public. He’s so honest he has attracted the romantic attentions of Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Bruce Wayne’s childhood sweetheart. Though Bruce still holds a torch for Rachel, even he is impressed and a little awed at Harvey.

You don’t have to know the comic (or the dark 1990s cartoon) to know that in this kind of story a person full of good is a person waiting to be corrupted. The movie’s final triumphant note would, in any other movie, be tragic. Even without considering this movie’s real-life cloak of sadness, it would be wrapped in bleakness. Every time you think things are at their worst, something even more awful happens. Every time a character appears to be at his or her lowest, they sink further. Unlike the happy-go-lucky lark of Iron Man or even the sarcasm-laced Hellboy, The Dark Knight gives you no zippy catch phrases or “woo-hoo” moments of giddy violence. Sure, there’s violence, there’s explosion, but it is all filled with dread. Even the movie’s laugh-out-loud moments are disturbing, coming, as they often do, from the Joker.

Speaking of which, if a zillion news stories hadn’t told you that was him up there, you’d be hard pressed to find Ledger in this most sublime villain. It is an amazing performance — terrifying, serious and completely eclipsing of any movie-star-ness of Ledger’s. Were it not for his death, this performance would be lauded and used as an example of why he should get serious dramatic roles. Because this is his last fully-realized performance, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it nominated for an Oscar. (And, particularly in this so-far light-weight year, it would deserve it.) Cesar Romero’s Joker was a naughty Bozo; Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a painted Jack Nicholson. Ledger’s Joker is an evil sadist who will destroy you just to prove that he can. During the second explanation of how the Joker became the way he is (different from the first; both, the audience is left to suspect, lies) you realize that this character’s origin story is irrelevant. He is driven by a desire to do the worst things possible just because.
It is, he tells Batman, why he can always beat Batman because Batman has rules and principles. The Joker has anarchy.

Even Batman gets darker here. Though we’re past the story of his parents and his creation of this alternate personality, Bruce Wayne here is sadder than before. He’s entrenched in his Batmanness now, he has a harder time seeing his way out. His well-intentioned actions seem to have dark consequences and it makes him unsure of the rightness of his role. Has he both turned himself into a freak and failed to really make things better?

If all of this sounds rather depressing, well, it is. It’s also wonderfully done. All the performances here are top-notch, even Gyllenhaal’s, whose character doesn’t always have all that much to do. She is a marked improvement over Katie Holmes (who played her role in the last movie) and she brings her own maturity and sadness to her slice of the story. This movie shows you an awful place and then makes it worse, torturing the characters that we like along the way, and yet you want to see more of it. Another one of this summer’s over-two-hour films, The Dark Knight completely engrosses you the entire time, never for a moment letting you turn away from its grim but exceptional story and its frightening but lovely scenes. A

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace. Directed by Christopher Nolan and written by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan (from a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, from characters by Bob Kane), The Dark Knight is two hours and 30 minutes long and opens in wide release on Friday, July 18. It is distributed by Warner Bros.