Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

In his 2005 origins tale Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan exhaustively examined fear under a cinematic microscope. How it's used, for what means, what brings it about, and what "Jungian archetypes" as the villainous Dr. Jonathan Crane said to Rachel Dawes represent it. In Begins those archetypes took the varied forms of maggots for Rachel, a sinister demon for Crane, a scarecrow for the gangster Carmine Falcone, giving Crane his alias and most iconically bats for Bruce Wayne. Most potently, however, was the fear inspired by the twin visages of a defenseless child being overwhelmed by a swarm of hideous-looking winged creatures, seemingly tormenting him in a cave and of a gun-wielding hood murdering his parents in a dark alley.

In his epic crime drama-cum-comic book superhero vs. supervillain tale, The Dark Knight, Nolan returns to fear. However, in this film, which flies higher, stealthier but simultaneously heavier, Nolan redirects the meme of fear: the essaying of fear in this stuffed, packed, labyrinthine exploration concerns itself with fear of oneself--fear of what we ourselves are capable of (and how we can live with ourselves afterwards), especially when confronted with absolute, senseless, terrifyingly feral chaos. That feral chaos is embodied in the otherworldly, makeup-wearing maniac, the Joker (Heath Ledger in his final completed film role) and he's hellbent on watching the world burn, to quote Alfred (Michael Caine), Bruce Wayne's (Christian Bale) butler, closest confidante and prototypical father figure.

In looking at Batman Begins, I analyzed it through my own belief that Nolan's greatest, most everlasting inspiration has been and still is Fritz Lang. Larry Gross at http://www.moviecitynews.com/ evidently agrees (come on, Larry, I know you just ripped me off) and points to some startling "coincidences" here: http://www.moviecitynews.com/voices/2008/080718_gross_darkknight.html. Lang's Spies is spotted as an inspiration, particularly for the Joker. A scene in which gangland chieftains unite around a table and find themselves in the company of the "freak" played by Ledger recalls Lang's M, which featured underworld gangsters joining forces to find the threat of Peter Lorre's deviant serial killer.

The Langian dichotomy becomes more pronounced in The Dark Knight and Nolan amps everything up by an apparent tenfold. The Joker is the philosophical polar opposite of everything Batman represents--order, reason, compassion and justice--but by being so he also shares a special place in the caliginous fabric of the Brobdingnagian Gotham City. If Batman nightly seeks to restore a sense of justice to the beleaguered streets of Gotham, the Joker is his equal in seeking out anarchy. Like Zeus battling the Titans, Batman seeks generalized, unspecific revenge on the crime lords of Gotham who have plagued his father's beloved but beaten city. In his raging war on crime, Batman's alliance with Major Crimes Unit leader Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) finds the third piece of a tripartite alliance with newly-elected District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Gordon and Batman have systematically targeted the mob's money-laundering affiliates, crippling them and forcing the gangsters to consolidate their resources and disparate piles of cash, letting Chinese mega-crook Lau keep the dirty money nestled far away from the Gotham Police Department and its jurisdiction in Hong Kong. When Lau is eventually captured in Hong Kong by Batman, and taken back to Gotham, he squeals just as the Joker predicted he would.

And that is one of the scarier aspects of The Dark Knight. Again and again, it's the Joker, not Batman, whose predictions come true. When he threatens to murder people every day Batman refuses to unmask himself, the public outcry for the caped crusader to reveal his identity becomes vociferous. And when the Joker targets the Rudy Giuliani of the story, the utilitarian and edgy DA, Dent, in order to make a mad murderer out of him, his success is just about total. Anyone as publicly ambitious as Dent probably possesses an on-the-edge, eerily scary authoritarian streak, as is shown in a crucial scene in which Dent speaks highly of the Roman practice of electing a single man to protect the Roman Republic, not as "an honor," but as "a duty." When Wayne listens to Dent's remarks, he comes to believe that he has found the ideal replacement for Batman but The Dark Knight is all about the complete annihilation of Wayne's naivete, hopefulness, optimism and at least partially his ideals. What he fails to consider both logically and symbolically is that Gotham still needs him to save it from the fiends who prey on it. Shortly after bringing Lau back by breaking and entering, kidnapping and rendition, Wayne posits to the woman for whom he pines, girlfriend-to-her-boss (Dent), Rachel (a subtly effective Maggie Gyllenhaal), that it was Dent, not he, who brought down "half of the city's criminals" through the Lau connection and he did it "without wearing a mask." Wayne deludes himself into believing a Panglossian fantasy--that the bureaucrat turned public savior with the bright sunny good looks and cleft chin can complete what he started. The day Batman is no longer needed is coming, he believes, or at least he says he does.

What The Dark Knight continues is the Nolanesque assault on what we perceive to be the characteristics of "the hero." In Memento, Guy Pearce's character literally could not remember what he had just done and consequently found himself repeatedly going beyond his own ethical limits in a singular quest for revenge against the man who raped and murdered his wife. In Insomnia, Al Pacino's weary cop begins to lose all perspective and inner security after a tragic incident places him on a moral high-wire in the face of his own better nature. The Prestige also attacked audience conformity. Nolan's magician rivalry drama played itself against the somewhat lazy expectations of the viewer by deliriously shifting perspectives and burrowing itself inside horrible, vengeful madness and obsession. Batman Begins hints at this Descartean, Sartrean existential duality and The Dark Knight recklessly, heedlessly plunges into the concept, wrapping its considerable arms around the theme and finally, belatedly, choosing to not so much grapple it to the ground and defeat it but in an act of heroic self-sacrifice on the part of Batman, simply recognize it in its myriad manifestations in the final movement of the film's brazenly morally-driven character study, making sense of it in all of its complexities. Bale's Wayne sits, forlorn after a crushing personal defeat, and as Alfred attempts to console him, he calls into question his very alter-ego's entire raison d'etre. Ostensibly, in the bleaker moments of Wayne's personal despair, all Batman has accomplished is making things worse and causing more people--including a small, feckless army of Batman impersonators--to die at the merciless hands of the Joker and other villains of Gotham.

The Joker's sick sense of humor is more than just villainous tomfoolery. His entire ethos is one that recognizes no rules and sees a future of humanity descending into animalistic barbarism. Whereas Batman's outwardly wicked apparel strikes fear into the hearts of his enemies, the Joker's mysteriously scarred, repugnantly obtrusive makeup, forming a cracked funhouse mirror version of a child's picture of a nightmarish clown whose multiple stories behind those scars' existence inspire deadly, pulse-quickening horror in the imminent victims he encounters in a complete symbolic inversion of good and evil. Note the fire truck set ablaze (so as to force a police caravan to take a confined, dangerous route). Not a cheap gag but a fundamental statement. Society's tools will be turned upside-down and mocked because as the Joker tells Batman in a scene that rightly recalls one of Nolan's inspirations, Michael Mann's Heat--a scene of dialogue between the two ying-and-yang forces, mirrored image protagonists that illuminates the weaknesses of Batman, "With all of your strength, there is nothing you can do!" It is one of many moments that finds failure in Batman as well as being a piercing echo of gangster Sal Maroni's earlier exclamation, "You have rules! The Joker doesn't have rules!" (thus, the city's protector finds his very ideals used against him by his nefarious foes) while giving the hero more of the same (Batman: "I have one rule..." Joker: "Tonight you're going to have to break your one rule!" Batman: "I'm considering it..."), further eroding Batman's moral foundation.

The scene between the Joker and Batman plays to the epically Greecian tragedy aspect of the film's plotline. Batman meets his match in a nemesis that provokes the opposite in humanity as the Joker's id is wholly unbound and it jovially asks Batman to follow it outside of his own boundaries. (In a moment that recalls DeNiro telling Pacino, "You do what you do, I do what I do," thus equating the two antagonists, the Joker declares, "To them, you're just a freak. Like me." They may be on opposing teams, but they are linked by their mutual outcast existence.) While Batman's greatest attribute is his fierce self-discipline, the Joker is unconstrained and taunts the moral rationale behind Batman's very existence, taking remarkable delight in playing a deadly game with Gotham's nocturnal vigilante.

The screenplay by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan ably maneuvers itself around the pulpy source material while offering many intelligent nods to future events through deceptively casual dialogue. Wayne, speaking of Dent at a fundraiser: "This is the face of Gotham's hero, the face Gotham believes in...."; when Alfred warns, "Know your limits, Master Wayne," he is only barely speaking of Bruce's several bruises; Dent asks Gordon, "What was the name you guys called me at MCU when I was at Internal Affairs?" and Gordon's answer belies his own knowledge by unconvincingly protesting, "I wouldn't know about that," only revealing the name when confronted by a righteously furious Dent much later in the film. Furthermore, the screenplay indulges itself with a plethora of themes that resonate deeply, palpably. The relationships in the film are all realistically realized. The love triangle between Wayne, Dent and Dawes is told with sensitivity and smarts. It's a nuanced, balanced take and honestly ranks with the more intelligent cinematic love triangles this side of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The actions of Batman--shielding Gotham's more quotidian heroes like Dent and Gordon, placing his Tumbler in the way of a bazooka from the Joker just in time to save an armored truck carrying Dent and sacrificing his Lamborghini as Bruce Wayne--are actions that speak more about the absorption of pain for the sake of others in spite of the hammering Wayne's credulousness and self-awareness that The Dark Knight unfurls.

The acting makes a great deal of it all work, seamlessly so. Bale is quickly becoming the unsung hero of his own franchise, playing a faintly deranged, highly aloof and socially troubled billionaire who switches gears between clueless, haughty playboy and the mainly shy, unassuming and sensitive fellow who cherishes Alfred's wise advice. Caine, too, holds his own at all times, and his interaction with Gyllenhaal's Rachel is rewarding and rich despite its brevity. Caine's Alfred is not quite the moral center of this film that he was in Begins but it's interesting to see Nolan place him in a different light, as we are encouraged to think of him searching for a crazed bandit in Burma in his more formidable years. Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox is given significantly more to do as the CEO of Wayne Enterprises in The Dark Knight and is confronted with a moral dilemma that rings true while also stirring the topical issue of surveillance. Eckhart carries a great deal of the film, and he is the real spinal cord of the picture. His Dent is wired, electric, but also charming, with a masking serenity that hides the darker impulses he truly has, as a tense scene in which he threatens one of the Joker's goons shows.

Ledger as the Joker is as captivating as you have heard. His Joker offers a series of existential dilemmas to practically everyone he meets, and particularly for Gotham City at large. The iniquitous Joker is made into a whole character by Ledger, who, like Brando, seems to begin his acting work from the inside and then get to the outside behavioral ticks and mannerisms late. It's a tour de force performance. The Joker as played by Ledger is a fearlessly, inimitably brilliant criminal whose motives have little if anything to do with money and power and everything to do with sadism (his explanation for favoring knives over guns will make your blood turn into ice water in your veins) and upsetting the establishment, which includes the mob. When he confronts a wretchedly disfigured Dent in a hospital room, he tells him that Dent's life as a schemer with plans, like the police, Gordon and other criminals, has led to nothing but misery for him. The Joker's description of things going "according to plan," like a gangbanger being shot and a truck's worth of soldiers being blown up, strikes the heart of the banality of evil, which this film approaches with clear-headed Hobbesianism. But when you do something like say a mayor is going to be killed, everyone becomes upset, the Joker wails. Ledger's dynamic, tumid work leaves startling room for greater insight: he's the most clearly consistent character in the film, something of an unstoppable constant, even when he's off-screen, but the performance is laced with wit and catholic existence. His performance is simultaneously simple and complicated, and its intensity is nothing short of volcanic.

Like No Country for Old Men, Nolan's The Dark Knight seems to tackle the nihilistic belief that, as one character says late in the film, morality is chance. It says something about our time, and our place, that this seems to be a recurring multi-faceted intellectual quandary. That isn't to say The Dark Knight embraces this bleak hopelessness but like No Country the film confronts this with a deliberate coolness and weighty but agile symmetry. In the end, a man who falls from grace lets his coin make the decisions for him, driven mad from great pain, physical, mental and spiritual. Like the Coens' Oscar-winner, The Dark Knight questions whether we are able to confront such randomness, and if we are, do we become definitively different people as a result?

The Dark Knight concludes with a sense of funereal melancholy. One overarching and quintessential theme of the film is the worthiness of truth. The film's concluding passage recalls The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. At a crucial moment, Batman and his friend Gordon choose to "print the legend." As Batman decides to protect Gotham from a devastatingly ugly truth, Alfred makes the decision to burn a letter from Rachel whose message was precisely not what Bruce believed to be her personal belief between he and Dent at the time of her death. Bruce even decides then and there after Rachel's death, saying, "She was going to wait for me, Alfred. Dent can never know..." Alfred craftily takes away the letter from Rachel indicating otherwise. Alfred decides just as Batman decides Batman can be whatever Gotham needs him to be, Rachel and her memory can be whatever Bruce needs her to be, allowing him to remain deluded. More sin-cleansing than ever before, taking up the sins of Gotham itself and of one man in particular, Batman becomes a more darkly messianic figure that, coupled with his self-discipline, place him under the broadest possible umbrella of the "superhero" genre. At the end, The Dark Knight not only recalls The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance but also Shane, with Gordon taking the place of Van Heflin's virtuous farmer and Batman in the role of Alan Ladd's shadowy, socially outcast gunfighter, with Gordon's son calling out, "Batman! Batman!" as the Dark Knight, wounded, disappears into the night.

The Dark Knight deserves at least two viewings. The film is overwhelming the first time, but flows much better the second go around. The twisting plot and narrative gravitational pull (great storytelling works like the Joker's explanation of madness--all it takes is a good push, and The Dark Knight is a stellar example) of the film is intense, powerful and, as you doubtless have guessed by now, dark.

46 comments:

Daniel G. said...

Pop the champagne, sir, this is a keeper. Can you turn this in for a class or something?

What resonated with me the most was your observation that The Joker is in a sense "winning" as his predictions come true.

Well done. Having only seen it once I'm overwhelmed with how many more layers there may be to discover.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Daniel.

"Can you turn this in for a class or something?" Ahahaha.

The first viewing was quite overwhelming. I had difficulty just remembering the chronology of the film with its many plot points. When you see it a second time, it all feels as though it flows more properly, and you're able to enjoy and digest it completely both on the surface and more deeply.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thinking about this as I filled my car up with gas: I suppose what The Dark Knight is most pointedly saying is that we all need the imagery of the White Knight for hope, but we all need the reality of the Dark Knight.

Daniel G. said...

Were you daydreaming about a superhero coming to save you from high gas prices? I often do.

Yes, I agree with your thought, but the hope in TDK was just SO overshadowed by the hopelessness.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, it really beats the audience with the hopelessness, Daniel, I agree. Late last night I was engrossed reading different people's takes on the ending. Some were saying it was fully unhappy, with the only ray of hope being the conclusion of the twin ferry drama.

On other other hand, some people made the point that Batman's selfless actions at the very ending places him in a more purely heroic manner than ever before.

The thing is, I agree with that point, but at the same time the film seems to be saying, "If you're going to be a true hero, be prepared to be a complete, largely loathed outcast." That's where Batman will find himself for a while. It's quite bitter indeed.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ha, I'd like someone to save me from the gas prices, Daniel, you've got me there.

Nick Plowman said...

What a review, kinda wish I had waited a while and then I could have copied your masterful thoughts….[joke]

In all seriousness, I think TDK has really allowed bloggers and film writers to come up with the most amazing pieces of art on this latest incarnation of Batman, which I have mentioned elsewhere as well, and you sir are no exception.

I cannot wait to see it again, it opens here in SA tomorrow and I am hopefully going to see it normally, as in not in IMAX like I saw it at a press screening because as great as it was, I have never experienced a headache like I did after this movie. The most justified headache of my life.

sarcastig said...

The most thorough and comprehensive analysis of the film I've seen so far! Truly impressive. Though I was left a little underwhelmed by the film, your post actually convinced me that I should probably go for a second helping. As the b/f is on holiday now and probably won't have seen it when he comes back, I have a good excuse.

Still. I'm watching the original Tim Burton Batman right now, and while Ledger's Joker made such an impression Nicholson's barely looks threatening at all, I enjoy it so much more than I did this murky, messy new installment... Oh well. I guess a second helping will clarify things.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for those kind words, Nick and Hedwig.

Nick: I too had something of a headache coming out of the San Francisco Metreon's IMAX auditorium on opening day. But what a headache! The most jarring aspect was coming out and seeing bright sunshine through the windows. It felt completely wrong and was so jarring. The film is "smoother" the second time--as I suspect both you and Hedwig (and others, for that matter) will discover. It's highly charged and enjoyable on a "normal" screen, too, but I have to admit seeing it on IMAX was almost a spoiling experience (part of that was just the atmosphere of the experience, which was tremendous--certainly one of my all-time favorite filmgoing experiences).

But I'm glad you thought highly of the review, and I agree with you, Nick, that this film has inspired many great, probing looks at the film, including yours.

Hedwig: I think you may find it less messy upon second viewing, and it sounds like you seem to think so, too. (It does remain "murky," intentionally so, but I can be kind of a murky guy, so I'm all right with it.)

The way I see it, the Burton movies were what they were, and Nolan's films are what they are. I actually prefer Batman Returns to the '89 Batman--I think it's aged better, it's more personally Burtonesque, and I'm a fan of Pfeiffer's Catwoman, so much so that I don't think Nolan needs to go to that feline well for his films (though if he were to do so, I imagine he could happily surprise me with the results). Nicholson as the Joker is what was called for in that movie at that time, even if as a consequence it feels aged, and not in a good way.

One of the key differences is, being only four years old when the '89 Batman came out, I do remember how so many kids just slightly older than I ate it up. Nolan's films really are aimed at teenagers on up... Of course, at the time of the two Batman movies, a lot of parents were upset because they thought the movies were too dark for little kids, but I think that "darkness" was just Burton's gleefully gothic take, which compared to Nolan's simultaneously more toned down and thematically deeper films, really isn't so "dark" as just weird-o, though in a reasonably endearing way.

Must admit, though, I haven't seen the Burton Batman movies in ages and I'm afraid it would kind of a chore for me to go back to them anytime soon; on the other hand I could see myself seeing The Dark Knight one last time before it leaves cinemas. Ah, young adults these days...

K. Bowen said...

ONe thing that interests me that you touched on is the question of how information and lack of it shapes the morality of actions. That's important in other Nolan films (Memento obviously), and I'm not quite sure how it works here overall. You mention Rachel's letter. There's also the situation at the end. Batman doesn't know that Dent had won Rachel's heart. Dent doesn't know that Batman has lost everything he has, and more. I'm trying to figure out how that shapes the scene.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, the way I read those matters, K.B.--especially seeing it a second time, with a greater emphasis on the prism of the "Greek tragedy" of The Dark Knight--the characters are unaware of the "hearts" of the other characters. (In this way, it really is kind of Shakespearean, too.)

I agree that it's something that Nolan's been interested in since Memento, and I think it stems from his fixation on identity. In Memento, almost literally everything we've come to believe turns out to be false (the slight-of-hand with regards to the long-term "memories" of Guy Pearce's character, which upends the whole film and reveals him, finally, to be a psychotic killer)--Nolan has become more narratively "simple"/conventional (or, "less gimmicky," if you like) but also seemingly more interested in conscious decisions about the truth, and the hiding of it (something only the very ending of Memento hints at, or touches on, though brilliantly at that).

My own pet theory that I've been working on in my head is that Bruce Wayne interpreted Dent as the true heir/successor to his own father: i.e., the public face (as Wayne himself describes him) that Gotham is and must continue to look up to. As Batman, Wayne thinks, he can never be that--Dent, however, can and must be. So when Dent exclaims, "Then why was it I who lost everything?!" and Batman says, "Because you were the best of us!" I think he truly believes that. Dent doesn't know that Batman has lost so much, too. The whole tapestry of that scene displays just how in the dark everyone is of their counterparts.

I think one of the many things that makes the ending so crushing is that Wayne obviously doesn't think his crimefighting persona can inspire anyone (think of this whole film and then put it up against that awfully corny scene in Spider-Man where everybody sticks up for Spider-Man because, well, whatever) but at the same time, after seeing what the Joker made out of Dent, his faith in any kind of actual White Knight ala his father must be moribund.

sartre said...

"Wayne deludes himself into believing a Panglossian fantasy--that the bureaucrat turned public savior with the bright sunny good looks and cleft chin can complete what he started. The day Batman is no longer needed is coming, he believes, or at least he says he does."

For me, hopefully Nolan is working towards the bigger question in the next installment - do we need vigilante's at all (mythic or real)? For me, individuals and groups who behave in this manner, no matter how well intended, are just as scary as more run of the mill criminals. Authority needs checks and balances, accountability. And as much as possible reflect the predominant values of the community it represents. Elected officials and the professionals that serve them can also be corrupt but there is still greater opportunity to limit their powers.

Why Batman under Nolan is becoming so interesting, as was the case with the best Batman graphic novels, is that this level of discourse is encouraged by his work.

As a non-American, at times I've experienced this country through its leadership and the values reflected in its art as more culturally tolerant of and open to vigilantism and its equivalent (disregard of international and/or domestic laws that place necessary constraints upon power) - so long as you're doing the "right thing".

sartre said...

In my eagerness to follow up on your quote from your review I forgot to praise your excellent work here.

No one can ever accuse you of not putting great energy and thought into your film analysis. And of not working hard to articulate yourself with precision. The effort most certainly pays off here with you mining plenty of rich veins within the material. Bravo my friend.

sartre said...

In my eagerness to follow up on your quote from your review I forgot to praise your excellent work here.

No one can ever accuse you of not putting great energy and thought into your film analysis. And of not working hard to articulate yourself with precision. The effort most certainly pays off here with you mining plenty of rich veins within the material. Bravo my friend.

sartre said...

Sorry for the double post.

"Like the Coens' Oscar-winner, The Dark Knight questions whether we are able to confront such randomness, and if we are, do we become definitively different people as a result?"

Perhaps this was the intention of No Country the film.

However, the greater presentation of Chigurh’s philosophy in the book suggested a different take.

His was a wholly deterministic vision of the world. Everything that happens was always going to happen, and was set in place long ago by what preceded it. The notions of chance and free will merely reflected the failure to discern the complexity of predetermination. There was no place for morality in such a worldview – everything was no more or less “right” than everything else. It gave Chigurh permission to do whatever he felt like – because no matter how he might try to control the course of his life path whatever he did – whether seemingly deliberate or random – was always going to happen. Flicking the coin was a final step of predetermination, not chance.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sartre.

I agree with you about No Country the book, as Chigurh's certainly an extreme determinist.

Obviously, No Country shares with The Dark Knight a man who utilizes a coin to decide the fate of others (and many evidently illiterate, or, just ignorant, critics have accused The Dark Knight of ripping No Country off, which is laughable since Two-Face has been flipping his coin in comics for decades), but the mindsets of Two-Face and Chigurh are very different from one another as you state, Sartre.

Beyond the coin flipping or the Chigurh character himself, I do see No Country, the film, as being a film very much about chance (Moss finding the money, the motels he chooses to stay in resulting in bad news for the peronnel, etceteras) and The Dark Knight, with the freakish way in which Dent is disfigured, and the overwhelming sense of amoral anarchy brought about by the Joker (the paradox being, like with any organized anarchist, that his pursuit of anarchy is brilliantly planned).

Back to the vigilantism issue: I agree that it's both unique and rewarding to see Nolan's take on Batman's actions being treated with some ambivalence. Ultimately, though, I think Nolan's films consciously are saying that Batman as such--as an idea--goes beyond mere vigilantism like the Batmen seen in The Dark Knight. Neeson's character states matter-of-factly in Batman Begins that a vigilante is merely a man, but Batman, as I think Nolan sees him, transcends that--maybe not yet, clearly not successfully so yet, but he's on his way, perhaps... That may be the endgame of Nolan's trilogy, with the Batman as symbol finally fully realized.

It's a controversial and somewhat of a fine point, perhaps--and it is in its own way a continuation of your cultural point about vigilantes being considered instruments of good if they pursue "the right thing," and such, but this is a mature handling of it that seeks to thoroughly realize all of the complexities entailed.

sartre said...

"but this is a mature handling of it that seeks to thoroughly realize all of the complexities entailed."

Completely agree.

But what are you getting at when you say "Ultimately, though, I think Nolan's films consciously are saying that Batman as such--as an idea--goes beyond mere vigilantism like the Batmen seen in The Dark Knight"? I personally struggle to separate the idea of him from his vigilante behavior.

Back to No Country. I'll offer a different take on the story (film and book). Rather than being about chance for me it was about the consequences of irresponsible choices. Choices made because it was in the nature of the principal character to make them. And the collateral damage in terms of bystanders was always risked by Llewelyn choosing to take the money and run - no less wrong because it was drug money.

Failure to think through the consequences and the extent to which he endangered his wife, mother-in-law, brother (in the book), and anyone else who happened to get in the way of those who pursued him was a flaw that he always had.

And not always being able to see what's coming - like being hit by a car - doesn't mean these unexpected events are chance outcomes. The guy who runs the red light or a stop sign and injuries or kills us is responsible for his action, not chance. We risk terrible outcomes for ourselves and others when we behave recklessly or negligently. I think both the film, and most definitely the book were encouraging the reader to reflect upon the nature of cause and effect. Looking under the surface of "chance".

Not saying you're wrong, just offering another reading.

Alexander Coleman said...

I don't disagree with a single word about No Country for Old Men being about choice as much as anything. I think we're saying the same thing: the "chance" is rooted in choice (which I should have said when I noted Moss finding the money--he has a choice and he chooses to take it, chooses which motels and hotels to stay at, etc., etc.).

All of the Coen Bros. films are about "chance" as determined by choicec. If they weren't, they wouldn't be as rich and interesting as they are. The randomness merely places people in the position of making a choice, which is all that life is. Chigurh's statement that he got where he did just like the coin is partly tied to this, as well as his extreme determinism like you say. As Chigurh says to Carla Jean, Llewellyn had a choice, and his choice helped result in Chigurh going after Carla Jean, and subsequently she says that he has a choice as well, and the coin is just his B.S. justification.

Back to The Dark Knight, though--the point about Batman being more just a vigilante comes about from the psychological reasoning on his part, largely from Neeson's Ducard/Ra's al Ghul, who, besides being a terrorist in reality, imparts crucial advice, whatever you think of it, that a vigilante is merely a man--and as such can be beaten, broken, thrown into jail, killed, what have you. His intention, or so he says, at least, is to make Wayne into something much more everlasting, something unquestionably superior. He says he's offering a path that leads to the man being trained eventually becoming "a legend," and not just a self-righteous thug.

Wayne takes many of the things Neeson's character suggests, and applies them to his own quest to restore integrity, order and justice to Gotham. As Ra's al Ghul states, partly humorously, much later in the film, "You took my advice about theatricality... quite literally." Along with other characteristics.

It's a vexatious point: can someone whose actions are in essence that of a vigilante transcend that and be a symbol for the people? Thus far, the films have been positively bleak: the only people seemingly wholly inspired by Wayne's alter-ego are those ineffective Batmen he discourages in The Dark Knight. There's an unsaid point about Batman's presence leading to the conditions for Harvey Dent's successful campaign for DA, in the wake of good cop Jim Gordon becoming a lieutenant, which Gordon attributes directly to Batman at the end of Batman Begins, saying, "You've really started something," and as the Joker remarks in The Dark Knight, "You've changed things... Forever."

The problem is, the change has led to a backlash, and some discouraging, even devastating problems. I was writing back and forth with a fellow though email who picked at the point at the press conference in which Dent accepts the statement of a guy yelling, "Things are worse than evr!" wondering how that could be if Dent has succeeded in cleaning up the streets so thoroughly, locking up half the city's criminals. But it ties in to the idea of escalation, and the one voiced by Alfred later, that supposedly eveyone knew things would get worse befoe they got better. Again, another moral issue that ties directly to the pro/con debate about Batman, and, beyond that, fighting crime, disorder, or, topically, terrorism, altogether.

Alexander Coleman said...

As you can see, the "r" in my keyboard seems to be going out a little. Must be gentler with it.

Oh, and another above post, it's "sleight-of-hand." There, I've corrected myself.

sartre said...

Hee hee, it's been fun trying to throw curve balls your way. Must get back to watching Youth Without Youth. Thanks for the thoughtful replies my friend.

Alexander Coleman said...

Aha, it's a lot of fun, Sartre.

K. Bowen said...

In discussing Chguhr's coin, I always took it that he is the Grim Reaper, like The Seventh Seal. It's his way of rationaizing his randomness, and his way of allowing the knight to play chess for his life, to give the . In the next scene, the sheriff's relative says that when it's your time, it's your time, you have nothing to say about it, and to believe otherwise is vanity, i.e. hubris. Llewellyn has hubris in thinking that he can outrun and outgun (i.e. play a role in) his own death. Carla Jean is offered the same chance, the illusion of being able to control her own death, and she refuses it.

Alexander Coleman said...

That's a terrific examination, KB. Back when No Country came out, I discussed the Chigurh character with others in a similar light, as being Death, and that the film echoed many of the mortal dilemmas that Bergman's opus did. (Too bad I didn't have a blog back then, aha.)

I really like the specific analogy, though, about Llewellyn playing the game of chess as represented by the entire chase from Chigurh.

I also think it's interesting that the Coens decided to reinforce this point by not having Carla Jean finally accept Chigurh's rationalization, as she feels compelled to in the book, ultimately choosing to "call it."

Marrying the two aforementioned concepts, though, you can see how No Country is certainly a film about choice resulting in the hazards of the "morality of chance," such as Llewellyn ultimately being eliminated by the Mexicans, not Chigurh, yet his actions nevertheless resulting in Chigurh pursuing his final target (Carla Jean).

Alexander Coleman said...

Thinking about the film some more, and specifically the question of yours, KB, about what the lack of information means for the characters, and more specifically about Alfred burning Rachel's letter to Bruce. It makes you wonder if, in actuality, Rachel's letter in a sense would have actually lifted at least some measure of grief for Bruce, as he would discover that she had more or less given up on him.

What I truly like about it the most, though, is that it seems like from here, Bruce can think of Rachel in a certain way, much like Guy Pearce's Leonard in Memento remembering his wife in a certain way, while the truth is either different or at least blurred.

Also, does anyone else think that even if Heath Ledger were alive today, his Joker would be at most a fairly small supporting player in the third film (possibly serving as a Hannibal Lecter character who Batman has to visit at Arkham for something) in any event? I just think that as far as being a major threat in these films, he's done. His final statements about he and Batman being destined to "do this forever," describes their future so well, as constant arch-enemies, that I think (and I suspect Nolan has thought) that in those terms, it's best to leave the Joker alone and move on to other things. I just think it was a brave way to let things rest, and, as we've discussed before, in many ways, despite his capture and the people on the ferries not complying with his plan (a symbol of these films' buried belief that ordinary people are largely "good"), let the Joker "win" (killing Rachel, twisting Dent, creating anarchy, devastating Batman on several separate planes) in essence.

Evan Derrick said...

Excellent, excellent work here Alexander (I'm finally getting around to reading everyone else's work now that I've finished my own).

I particularly love how you broke down Nolan's influences (Lang) and extrapolated the same themes in The Dark Knight as are in his other films.

As well, kudos to trumpeting the brilliant symmetry of the script with those examples. I really am just in awe of the work the Nolans did on this. As I was writing on the film I fell more and more in love with it. It may, perhaps, even eclipse Speed Racer as the film of the year (but probably not).

I think it is incredible (as was mentioned by Nick earlier in the comments) that this film has brought out such stellar work in so many people. We all had novels within us to get out on it. Does not that, more than anything else, serve as a testament to the film's incredible depth and nuance? After reading your piece I want to see the film again and look for the themes and moments you have highlighted.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Evan.

As I said elsewhere (can't remember where at the moment), this film has inspired a mass dialogue that goes beyond blockbuster spectacular hype. It inspires an enormity of thought, debate, analysis and more of the same, rinsed and repeated.

Joel said...

Hmm, your comment that Dent represents a sort of Rudolph Giuliani character for Gotham is at once intriguing, depressing, and quite illuminating, Alexander. Up to this point I've seen Dent (before his conversion to madness) as a force of good, order, justice, the American way, and apple pie. I had not thought of him as some moderate conservative man of justice who is as bent on political aspirations as he is in love with his city. Curious. I think you're on to something, if for nothing else than Dent's appreciation for the role of Caeser in the Roman empire (heh heh...nice point there).

There's been a lot of wondering about the politics of Batman and what angle Nolan is going for. I think beyond the themes of duality, of yin-and-yang opposing forces, of truths kept hidden to protect the masses, that this issue of the vigilante is clearly a core issue of the film. Batman breaks all the rules to protect Gotham from a threat he can't predict, contain, or apprehend. He values the lives of Gotham's citizens over their (presumed) ideals. Freedom, privacy, the presumption of guilt, even geo-politics mean nothing to his desire to protect this one city from a perceived threat. Like our current situation, the Constitution and Bill of Rights are only of value when they aren't hindering our blind pursuit of "justice" at home and abroad.

If the Joker is a terrorist, then is Batman our surrogate for Bush and Cheney? I've been dodging this issue for weeks now in my comments elsewhere on this film but it has been nipping at my heels since I walked out of the theater opening night. A second viewing did nothing to quell the lump in my throat that Nolan has made the most literate and stirring argument yet FOR the war on terror.

It's kinda terrifying actually. Was that his intent? Or is he offering the answer that a real hero would not sacrifice the bigger ideas to save a few lives? That Batman as an ideal and force for positive change is far more important than simply giving in to one demented man's demands or sacrificing liberty of all (or one) for a perceived quick fix to a much larger problem? In other words, maybe sometimes it's more important to make small sacrifices, however painful, to protect the larger ideals our society is based on.

Man, I hope so.

Because in the end, Batman doesn't solve anything. He apprends the Joker, but the damage is long since done. He sacrifices the myth he believes (wants to believe) will protect Gotham (Batman's incorruptable nature as judge/jury/executioner). He sacrifices the woman he loves. He destroys Batman's tools (when he prepares to go public, they burn it all). And he sacrifices the relationship with one of his closest confidents and advisors (Freeman). All of this...for what?

Batman has always been a tragic loner in the comic books, the Travis Bickell of super heroes. Always operating on the fringes, unable to sustain a relationship, perceived to be dangerous and unstable by his peers, and always attempting to right a world by a means well outside the law and order fantasy he envisions he will deliver.

Nolan has fully embraced that aspect of The Dark Knight and managed to deliver it in such a way that begs us to question every aspect of the character while simultaneously applauding his actions. It's the duality of the direction mirroring the duality of the central character.

I'm not sure where to go from here. Safe to say...you've left me very troubled. Good review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, Joel.

I agree with your points and concerns. Who would have thought a Batman film would inspire more and much deeper political analysis than that whole slew of Iraq War films that have been released in the last twelve months or so?

I think Harvey Dent is intended to be seen as a fundamentally good man who goes bad, and I think that perspective holds up well, but I think the Nolans were intelligent enough to penetrate the deeper nuances of the character, which inform his drive.

Regarding Wayne/Batman himself, I think you're right, Joel, that he just about completely sacrifices everything in The Dark Knight. I was already thinking this while discussing the film over lunch today, but I think the Godfather II comparison is completely appropriate, I believe more so now than I did initially. If you look at it as one sprawling character study, in the second installment of each tale the protagonist finds himself sacrificing practically everything that truly matters to his core being that by the end of the "Part II," all he has left is his identity. Which is partly why I think the closing shots of Godfather II and The Dark Knight respectively say so much about each character that it may almost be folly to continue onward from there, but no matter. In any event, a certain "arc" has come to fruition. In each case, it's not a pretty sight.

The second time I saw the film, a woman to my right by a number of seats actually audibly broke up and started sobbing in the final couple of scenes. The ending is as brave as any aspect of the film, and it's also powerfully, uniquely devised.

Joel said...

I've never really thought of Batman as essentially a neo-con, but his politics in the comic books have grown more and more conservative since Miller's Dark Knight Returns re-envisioned the character. It makes sense. Batman is a unilateral superhero who works outside the law at all times.

If Nolan is implying that Batman's actions are more important in the moment than the rules and laws he claims to believe but routinely breaks, and by applauding him we the audience are tacitly approving his actions, then the film is a condemnation of the last 7 years of American history.

If Nolan is instead saying that sometimes sacrifices must be made at the most fundamental levels to protect us all from mad men bent on watching the world burn, then The Dark Knight is a not-so-subtle approval of the last 7 years of American history.

I can't decide which feels more accurate to me but considering it's a massive winner at the box office it would seem Nolan is on to something here either way. He's hiding these politics in plain site, but not specifically acknowledging them in the film. Because it's a superhero film about a vigilante, the whole issue is fairly murky.

I like the Godfather 2 comparison, Alexander. Michael's and Batman's sacrifices are intended to achieve completely different goals yet they both are patently self-serving.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, I don't think Batman is a "neo-con," either, but I do find it interesting that both Batman films--and especially this new one--by Nolan demonstrate all of the failings of the character. Batman screws up a lot in The Dark Knight, so much so that it's easy to lose the importance of it within the heightened tension and drama involved.

And I like that. As I was expalining to someone yesterday, The Dark Knight is following Batman Begins by expanding on the character's "growth," or what have you. Perhaps the game plan is for Batman #3 to be the film where he redeems himself to everyone, including the public, but part of me wonders if Nolan will go that conventional with it. Something tells me another major price will have to be paid for that to happen. He'll never be the center of fawning crowds like Spider-Man, but presumably at a certain point for Batman to become the more recognizable hero, the public will have to at least begin to largely favor his existence.

The Dark Knight seems to be more readily interpreted as at least partly a validation for the last seven years, but only in the context that sometimes one must go beyond the dispassionate boundaries of law that have been a cornerstone of western civilization since before Aristotle.

It would appear that will only become a greater issue in this series of films with the third as Batman is now in a truly adversarial relationship with the police.

Another point about Nolan's films is that he has patently painted Jim Gordon as the audience's window to look through with regards to Batman. That may indicate that at the very least Nolan feels genuinely queasy about the necessity of Batman, and he certainly wishes that all we needed were men like Gordon--who are within the bounds of the law--to combat evil. Of course, by the same token, Gordon "okaying" Batman's actions also can be argued to be a reinforcement of Batman's raison d'etre and the need for "The Dark Knight."

Alison Flynn said...

Excellent review, Alexandre. It was a pleasure to read. I especially liked the comparison to Lang's films, particularly M, which deals with the theme of vigilante-ism and looks at it from both sides. And of course, Peter Lorre cries out the very same "What gives you the right?" as the Batman impersonators in this movie.

Even with just the one viewing the film resonated with me on many levels, and there are so many complex layers and themes. I'm sure I'll get even more out of it on a second viewing.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Alison, and your points in connecting the film to M are excellent. Both films are very much about vigilantism, and I like your connection to that line of dialogue, something I hadn't thought of.

I think this is a rich, rich film that gains the more you see it and the more you think about it. A rare blockbuster to be sure.

Anonymous said...

joker was good but i think iron man will be more anticipated fot the next one. and i can't wait to see the sequel beause iron man will probably only end up being a trilogy although pirates of the caribbean is set to make number 4. the batman franchise could seemingly go on forever like james bond. which reminds me that the new james bond trailer looks good. just saw it before eagle eye. gopatgo

Alexander Coleman said...

Interesting input, Anonymous. It will be interesting to see where at least a couple of these franchises go from here.

sluggo the clown said...

AWESOME REVIEW!!!!!!!!

the joker reminded me when he almost slashed Gyllenhaal's little throat. i like using knives a lot and when i abduct boys i sometimes have trouble deciding whether to use an axe or knife.

Sam Juliano said...

Yes, this was one of your most unforgettable reviews Alexander, of a film that won't seemingly ever lost its topicality. You are right to post links to it. It's THAT good!

Alexander Coleman said...

Why, thank you very much, Sam.

y so serius said...

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

TURBO THE TERRIBLE said...

THE JOKER RULES.

Alexander Coleman said...

I thought the Joker was an agent of chaos, Turbo.

donald plant said...

i want my son back says the octo mom

Anonymous said...

The greatest online review of this film available. Superb Mr. Coleman superb.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous, though I'm sure you're being vastly too kind.

Anonymous said...

Christopher Nolan should have to answer for this.

Alexander Coleman said...

Or perhaps the U.S. military should, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

You Would Not Believe Your Eyes
If Ten Million Fireflies
Light Up The World As I Fell Asleep
Cause They Fill The Open Air
And Leave Teardrops Everywhere
You'd Think me Rude
But I Wouuld Just Stand And stare
I'd Like To make Myself Believe That Planet earth Turns Slowly
It's Hard To Say That I'd Rather Stay Awake When I'm Asleep
Cause Everything Is Never As It Seems

Cause I'd Get A Thousand Hugs
From Ten Thousand Lightning Bugs
As They Tried To Teach Me How To Dance
A Foxtrot Above My head
A Sockhop Beneath My Bed
A Disco Ball Is Just hanging By A thread
I'd Like To make Myself Believe That Planet earth Turns Slowly
It's Hard To Say That I'd Rather Stay Awake When I'm Asleep
Cause Everything Is Never As It Seems
When I Fall Asleep
Leave My Door Open Just A crack

Please Take Me Away From Here

Cause I Feel Like Such An Insomniac

Please Take Me Away From Here

Why Do I Tire Of Counting Sheep

Please Take Me Away From Here

When I'm far Too Tired To Fall Asleep
To Ten Million Fireflies
I'm Weird Cause I Hate Goodbyes
I Got Misty Eyes As They Said Farewell
But I'll Know Where Several Are
If My Dreams Get Real Bizzare
Cause I Saved A Few And I Keep Them In A Jar
I'd Like To make Myself Believe That Planet earth Turns Slowly
It's Hard To Say That I'd Rather Stay Awake When I'm Asleep
Cause Everything Is Never As It Seems
When I Fall Asleep
I'd Like To make Myself Believe That Planet earth Turns Slowly
It's Hard To Say That I'd Rather Stay Awake When I'm Asleep
Cause Everything Is Never As It Seems
When I Fall Asleep
I'd Like To make Myself Believe That Planet earth Turns Slowly
It's Hard To Say I'd Rather Stay Awake When I'm Asleep
Because My Dreams Are Bursting At The Seams