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.