For 13 long years Braveheart has sat atop my list of all-time favorite movies. Last night, at 12:01am, that 13 year old record was shattered, when along with thousands of others I sat down for what I'm sure will be the first of several times and watched 2 hours and 35 minutes of pure brilliance, entitled The Dark Knight.
I'm almost at a loss for words when it comes to describing how actually awe inspiring this film is. Over the last few weeks I've read several reviews from various magazines, i.e. Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, AICN, etc. All of those sites more or less gave the same review. They recommended Heath Ledger for a posthumous Oscar nod, they compared the movie to the Deniro/Pacino classic Heat, and they all bawked at the movie's length, stating that it gets a little slow in the middle and lags. To say I went in to the movie with certain expectations would be a bit of an understatement.
So where do I begin? How about where this film began: Batman Begins. I do enjoy Batman Begins. I enjoyed it when I saw it the first time, but found that when I went to rewatch it, I would often skip the first couple chapters that find Bruce climbing mountains and fighting old dudes on ice rinks. The Dark Knight pretty much picks up where Begins leaves off, but I don't see myself ever skipping any chapters when I rewatch it.
I'll be honest, I'm really at a loss for words for this movie. I don't want to follow suit like all the major movie review outlets. I will agree with them that Heath Ledger would deserve an Oscar. I'll address his performance in a minute. I would agree that the film has the feeling of an intense police drama, reminiscent of a film like Heat, but at the same time it had a very... almost Godfather feeling to it. However, I completely disagree that the movie lags in the middle. Not once did I ever feel bored, restless, or uninterested. I would even go as far as to say I was on the edge of my seat from the word Go. The movie starts off with an awesome, fast paced bank heist, wrought with double-crosses and twists and turns, and it never really strays away from that feeling. There are a few touchy-feely Bruce/Rachel scenes, but they're short and far between, so it's bearable.
Speaking of Rachel Dawes, Maggie Gyllenhaal steps in to the role, replacing Katie Holmes. The role itself isn't all that revolutionary, but Gyllenhaal does a good enough job to help us forget Katie originated the role in the first film. You could say Gyllenhaal brings a slightly more masculine approach to the role. She carries a certain confidence that Holmes lacked as her predecessor, and has no problem standing up to Bruce, The Joker, or her fiance Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart.
I've always been kind of so-so with Aaron Eckhart, but in The Dark Knight he finally showed to me that he can play a character with depth and emotions. In fact, he does it so well that I'm really shocked he hasn't been cast in this sort of role sooner. Harvey Dent is supposed to be the great White Knight (notice the play on words there), the anti-Batman, who will bring Gotham's criminals to their knees. Behind the scenes he needs Batman's help though, and it's that beautiful play on their characters interaction that makes you grow so attached to Dent. Wayne/Batman sees him as his way out of having to hide under a cape and cowl, but The Joker refuses to let Batman step aside while Harvey Dent takes all the credit for his hard work. In Begins, Rachel Dawes told Bruce Wayne "the day that Gotham City didn't need Batman, was the day they could be together" and Bruce sees Harvey Dent as being the only way to reach that day... too bad Harvey wants to marry Rachel.
Christian Bale reprises his role as Gotham City billionaire by day, masked vigilante by night Bruce Wayne. Gone are the days of Bruce's shattered past and angst-ridden decision making. There's nothing "Begins" about The Dark Knight. The movie's centripetal plot is the inner turmoil Bruce must face, as he attempts to catapult his competition for the love of Rachel in to the city's spotlight. He knows he has to do what's right by helping Harvey Dent, but at the same time does it for selfish reasons, thinking it will bring him closer to Dawes. As Batman, he's faced with his biggest challenge ever, in The Joker. Never before has a villain or an obstacle faced been this much of a challenge for Wayne, and as the story unfolds you see him more as a man, than as a superhero. How does Batman react when the entire city he loves is falling to pieces around him? Does he abandon all hope for a normal life, or does he delve deeper in to himself than he ever has before, and become something entirely different and disturbing? It becomes evident that Batman will have to dig in to a deeper side of himself to get the job done, but at what expense?
The man causing Batman all of this turmoil is the film's villain, played to an art form by Heath Ledger, The Joker. I found myself often looking on Ledger's presence in this film with such despair and anxiety, because I was seeing not just a marveling tour de force performance, but I was seeing a great loss to the world of Cinema. Heath Ledger, to me, was always just one of those run of the mill guys. I'll be honest and say none of his performances ever really stood out to me enough that I would've thought the guy could be capable of such depth. I enjoyed some his roles when he was younger, The Patriot, 10 Things I Hate About You, and a couple years ago Lords of Dogtown. However, Heath had never really shown me before that he had this in him.
Everyone knows the stories about how he couldn't sleep at night from performing this role. He had a difficult time with reconnecting to this world, with stepping out of that character, and returning to his own personal innocence. To me, that comes as no shock. I've seen many villains in my day, and it's always kind of been my nature to root for them in my own way... but never before have I witnessed a performance that actually made me loath the character I was watching. Heath Ledger did not just portray The Joker. He revolutionized this character. He took the role to a place only seen in select graphic novels. He turned what had originally been designed as a gag in the early comic books to a place rarely seen on film. Ledger portrays the Joker with such brilliance, that you actually develop feelings of disgust and hatred for this person. Every nuance and idiosyncrasy is played to such perfection, that you would think he was born in to this role. I assure you you will forget all about Jack Nicholson, or anyone else to ever don the purple suit and face paint. This Joker is just as dark and psychotic as he was in the graphic novel, killing without a thought, destroying entire buildings without flinching, and bringing the entire city of Gotham to their knees without ever really getting his hands dirty.
We see The Joker not just as an enemy to Batman, but as an enemy to everyone. No one is safe from his madness, and I think it was there, in that unbelievable darkness that Heath Ledger fell apart. Whether the actor took his own life, or died of an accident may never be known, but coming in to this film, and having now watched it in full, I could honestly see where a person could have trouble coming to terms with the level of evil they had to tap in to, in order to play this role to such magnificence. If Ledger is given a posthumous Oscar nomination, it will be completely deserved. If he were to win it, it would be completely deserved. I simply can not imagine that anyone else would have been as good in this role. The Joker was truly the part Ledger was born to play, and whether or not he died due in some part to having done so, I feel he would not have died in vain. You want to see this film for his performance, if not for anything else. Believe the hype, it IS that good.
Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Cillian Murphy all reprise their roles from the previous film. I would say Oldman's character, Lt. Jim Gordon goes through the most change in the film, and Oldman plays the character with such ease it's remarkable. I didn't know if I'd ever love him as a character as much as I loved him as Sirius Black, but as Jim Gordon he reminds us that honest men do still exist in the world. Michael Caine is still wonderful as Alfred Pennyworth, and as I've remarked before I still wish he was my granddad or something. Freeman plays his part, but it's nothing special. He's more of a tool of the story if anything. Murphy doesn't stick around long, as we had more than enough of him in the first film.
As I started to write this review I wasn't sure how I could possibly explain or convey how I felt about this movie. To say it changed my life would not necessarily be an understatement. Films have been known to do that before. It's just that this film is so much more than just another comic book movie. I said yesterday after seeing the trailer for Watchmen that The Dark Knight may not remain the best superhero movie ever, but now in hindsight I could be wrong. The Dark Knight is not only the greatest comic book adaptation done to date, it's one of the best films as well. Forget that it revolves around a caped superhero, and forget that the villain wears the makeup of a clown. Go in to this movie with an open mind, and expect nothing more than to enjoy yourself while watching an expertly done film. Christopher Nolan deserves more props than I've seen him getting in other reviews. He did what many directors have done and failed at. He made a Batman movie that leaves you wanting more.
I think I just might go see it again.