The first thing that must be said about Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is that this is no comic book movie. It’s a straight up action film with a surprising degree of unpleasantness for summer fare; a different kind of darkness, a modernist darkness. Take Gotham, for example. It’s not the gothic, stylized, noir-ish city of the comics and most of the previous movies. Instead, it’s a place of gleaming steel and airy plate glass aching to be shattered, where even the bat cave has been relocated to a neon-lit, concrete parking garage. It’s a city that looks like our home, with a problem from our headlines, with a dread we recognize as our own.
That problem is the Joker (Heath Ledger), a grimy scarecrow of shreds and scraps with a purple trench coat full of knives and a face painted with cracking pancake makeup, his wormy tongue constantly worrying his facial scars. Much has been written about this, Ledger’s final performance, and with good reason; he is brilliant, haunting. Wait until you see him in a nurse’s uniform. The most frightening thing about this Joker is that before he kills or disfigures you, he tells you how he got those slices that extend his mouth in a permanent leer. Each time, he gives a different explanation, like the Leopold and Loeb-alikes in “Funny Games”. Motivation is a joke to these guys; they do what they do because they like doing it.
Should we take the movie as seriously as it seems to call for? For now, let’s call it a post-9/11 film, one with terrorism on its mind. The Joker is, as Alfred the Butler (Michael Caine) says, a man who “cannot be bought, cannot be bargained with, cannot be intimidated. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Does this accurately describe terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh? It certainly describes their caricatures, but not the reality of idealism run amok. The joker is not a fanatic, he’s a lunatic. The film traffics in terrorism not to make us think deeply about it, but to grab us by the groin, and that it surely does.
What the film is really about is stringing us along with moral conundrums, where a good person must choose the lesser of two evils (the same trick that spawned four “Saw” films). The Joker, a man who defines himself as being “ahead of the curve,” is so many steps ahead of everyone else because he has read the screenplay.
Dramatically, the film is set up to perfection, but it doesn’t develop. Bruce Wayne, idealistic District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and lawyer Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) form a triangle of longing. But where is the hot jealousy? Why don’t developments leave Bruce Wayne shattered? Maybe they do, but all we see is him staring out a window. Here, denied all but his rage, Wayne is swallowed by his armor. Perhaps we must adjust, and assume that in a two-and-a-half hour film as packed as this one, the first movie is our backstory and action will have to suffice as character.
The billionaire vigilante and the greasy madman make for some eye-popping action, all right, more than enough to make the film a blockbuster. One of these scenes – a wonderfully long battle in a tunnel that winds up as a nighttime street brawl – is like something out of Michael Mann’s “Heat”. Nolan makes the wise choice of eschewing a music track here; he’s the rare director who uses sound itself to get us going.
And perhaps a disconnected hero with a borderline personality is part of Nolan’s conception, and why he picked Bale, who was so good as a hollow murderer behind the exfoliated face of a yuppie in “American Psycho”. A cold possibility indeed, and one I wouldn’t put past the director of “The Prestige,” again with Bale, one of the chilliest films around. “The Dark Knight” can rattle your teeth and knock off your socks, but does it really move you, or just leave you shaken and disturbed?