Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Fear and Trembling at the Multiplex

If, at any point during "The Dark Knight," you feel yourself shaking in your seat, make no mistake: you should be. This isn't just a comic book movie; "The Dark Knight" isn't here to lull us into the daze of familiarity. Voice running hoarse and fists slamming on the podium, this film stands before us intending to lead a great awakening.

Looking at writer/director Christopher Nolan, the film's success isn't hard to see. This is only his second major motion picture and he has already broken virtually every box office record there is. This is baffling in more ways than one. Yes, he came out of relative obscurity, but in his newfound fame, he has also managed to grow as an artist. The fractured plot of "Memento" seems almost a blueprint for the masterfully orchestrated chaos of "The Dark Knight."

The importance of the film's screenplay cannot be understated. For the first time in the history of comic book films, we find ourselves with characters who are truly human, ideas that are thoroughly developed, and plotlines that are shockingly relevant. It's hard to say if Nolan set out to tear down our preconceptions of what a comic book movie should be or if he was looking to do something greater. In any case, his audacity is apparent. "The Dark Knight" leaves its audience so unclear on what is truly right and good that all of the other films we have seen this summer seem laughably idealistic in hindsight.

This is inescapable thanks to Nolan's direction and the photography of Wally Pfister. Here, the film receives it's most obvious upgrade over the murky, more traditionally gothic tone of its predecessor. Batman's battles now take place before a backdrop that is cleaner and more realistic, and all the more insidious for it. This city may not be called Chicago, but it certainly lies within our country's boarders, located somewhere between Michael Mann and Raymond Chandler. Gotham's glass and steel stretches high, and Bruce Wayne always seems to be perched atop it. One of the film's most memorable shots has star, Christian Bale standing on a corner of the Sears Tower's rooftop. He peers out into the foggy city far below him. It's hard to say what is more unsettling: the dizzying height, or the question of what lies at the bottom.

The answer to that question is The Joker, a force of nature that washes over Gotham and cuts the tiny thread from which its stability hangs. There is no need to expound upon the praise already given to Heath Ledger's work in this film. Every frame of it is the work of an artist at the height of his ability. It is hard stop wondering if he will turn to you next and launch into a soliloquy on origin of his horrific scar, dividing his attention between you and the mangled face reflected in his own knife. Ledger's character alone resets the bar for future movie villains to absurd heights. Nolan crafted a character that is not pure evil, but pure danger, and Ledger plays it for everything it is worth.

Batman is only one of the three heroes with which The Joker will come to trade blows. Aaron Eckhart's development as the prominently chinned district attorney, Harvey Dent is as deep and fascinating to watch as Bruce Wayne's own origin story in the first film. Gary Oldman returns as Lieutenant Gordon in the film's most grounding performance. We see a great deal of him, and still, he is the only character who seems to get a cheer at every showing. Oldman reinvigorates the tired role of world worn cop in "The Dark Knight," carrying the weight of the city on his back and only betraying his agony in the smallest wrinkles of his weary face.

Nolan's ability to juggle so many characters and plot lines so deftly is truly impressive. Never does Nolan's direction feel as if it is dragging us from action sequence to action sequence. It has been a good while since action movies have been elevated to this dramatic level, so understand that I mean it in the most positive way when I say that the presence of action in the film is almost jarring. When Bruce Wayne becomes Batman and things start exploding, it is almost shocking to be reminded that "The Dark Knight" is an action film. When was the last time you saw a movie that made character development as thrilling as flipping a tractor trailer end-over-end?

It is hardly rare for me to feel that I am wasting my breath in praising a film. Thankfully, however, this is one situation where it is a good thing. "The Dark Knight" set out to reposition comic book action movies as legitimate film -- as something more than mere diversion. This film has succeeded in ways many could hardly imagine. It has awoken its audience to something far greater than anything of its kind that has come before. For once, I can proudly say that this is a film that reduces all moviegoers, both the average and the aloof, into giddy faithfuls.

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