The Dark Knight is a film for troubled times. The anarchy that The Joker (Heath Ledger) unleashes on Gotham City seems like a magnified version of what Western society is currently experiencing as economies contract and the threat of terrorism remains ever- present. This is a summer tent-pole movie that plays to the masochistic instincts of cinemagoers fretting over their own futures. All the signs are that audiences are basking in that sinking feeling and sense of trepidation the film gleefully induces.
The director, Christopher Nolan, who also co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, has commented that any "real-world parallels" are unintentional. But those parallels are surely there. Nolan contrives a world in which even the ostensible hero is a tormented and brooding figure. The little we can see of Batman's face beneath his mask is contorted into an almost permanent frown. The Joker looks as if he is on leave from a production of Marat/Sade. His face is messily powdered and he has a red rictus grin. His weapon isn't the guillotine but the knife he always carries with him in readiness to disfigure the features of any ofhis antagonists.
In truth, the film begins conventionally and a little tepidly. There is a Michael Mann-style bank heist in which we get our first glimpse of The Joker. Nolan orchestrates that scene effectively enough. A later scene, in which Batman travels to Hong Kong in pursuit of a crooked banker, is likewise spectacular, without seeming especially original. We're introduced to a cartel of mobsters and drug dealers who come straight from central casting: the Latino with the ponytail, the slick Italian in the Goodfellas suit, the unctuous money man. The Dark Knight only fully kicks into life with the superb scene in which The Joker gatecrashes a fundraiser that Bruce Wayne is holding for district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). It's at this point we realise that The Joker isn't after money or power but wants to create chaos for its own sake.
One guesses Nolan and his collaborators have been busy watching HBO's The Wire. They pay exhaustive attention to the inner-workings of Gotham's police force, which is riddled with corruption that not even Gary Oldman's upstanding Lieutenant Jim Gordon can wipe out. They look, too, at the political system. Dent is the city's great hope, but part of the film's project is to show how even the most courageous figures can lose their moral bearings.
Among the great strengths of The Dark Knight is the way it combines hardboiled naturalism with the kind of stunts and setpieces you expect in summer blockbusters. There is a love triangle, skilfully drawn. Both Wayne and Dent have their romantic moments with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Wayne again spends much time agonising with his paternal butler (Michael Caine, in scene-stealing form).
Nolan doesn't altogether avoid corny action-movie sequences. Certain ideas seem overly self-conscious. All those oblique references to Janus, the God with two faces, risk becoming wearing. The chases are sometimes overdone. There is, perhaps, too much Bond movie-style gadgetry.
But Nolan never loses sight of the characters at the centre of the story. Meanwhile, he contrives a finale which is gripping, thought-provoking and spectacular. Ledger gives a tremendous, Commedia dell'Arte-style performance, combining flamboyance with melancholy, and Christian Bale brings his trademark intensity to the Caped Crusader. (In hyper-drive throughout, Bale is a Batman to banish forever the memory of the genial but lightweight Adam West in the same role.)
Plenty of room is left for another sequel but Nolan will have to show enormous ingenuity if he is to trump his own efforts here.
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