Sunday, May 14, 2017

Chris' #78: The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Starring: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Jonathan Nolan. Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer (story credit)
Release Date: July 14, 2008

First Time
Opening weekend in Binghamton. I thought I was going to be able to tell you guys the exact date and time, but I lost my old movie stub. Before anyone accuses me of being some insane Dark Knight fanboy, know that I've held onto many movie stubs over the years. I was collecting them at one point, but haven't done as much of that lately.

You guys ever move something to a new spot so that it's more accessible, only to later forget where that new spot is? That just happened to me with the movie stub. Damnit.

Why it's on the List
It's not fun or easy to write about a film as ubiquitous as this one. Not only has The Dark Knight been discussed ad nauseam, but for too long we had to put with Heath Ledger/Joker Halloween costumes and plenty of bad impressions. With the enthusiasm for this film being so high among fanboys, it feels natural to pull away from it and pick at its flaws. And believe me, even as someone who loves this movie, there are a myriad of flaws, which I will eventually get into.

I'll never forget the build-up and anticipation for The Dark Knight. I remember scouring movie websites for rumors on who would play The Joker. Jeff and I were excited about rumors that Phillip Seymour Hoffman would play The Penguin at one point, though maybe that was for The Dark Knight Rises. It's crazy and sad that Hoffman and Heath Ledger are no longer with us. Ledger's passing wasn't exactly the Kennedy assassination, but I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. I had just started my last semester at SUNY New Paltz when I got a phone call from Jeff. We were both shocked and pretty beat up over it.

The Heath Ledger worship was pretty prevalent, well beyond the theatrical release of The Dark Knight. I don't mean to suggest that that worship wasn't deserved; if you wade through your own exhaustion over this film, you'll find an amazing performance that was worthy of an Academy Award. I'll also never forget my theater experiences; anytime Heath Ledger was on the screen, it felt like the air had been sucked out of the room. In those moments, I could sense that everyone around me was completely mesmerized.

Ledger's Joker really is one of the best movie villains I've ever seen. Speaking to the character in general, he's a good villain because he doesn't have ridiculous superpowers; he's just a guy, and a guy who could easily exist in the real world. Often the scariest things we can encounter are dangerous people we don't understand, and as Michael Caine explains, "some men just want to watch the world burn." I like that theme, and we can see plenty of examples of that in the people around us in one form or another. The "scars" runner in the The Dark Knight maybe grows a little stale after a while, but I still enjoy it because I like that The Joker just fucks with people. He's completely off-kilter, and you can see that in everything he does--the way he drives, the way he fights, the way he shoots a gun, the way he walks. Ledger's commitment was exceptional, and I'm happy that this performance will exist for a long time.

I'm not a huge Batman, DC, or even comic book fan, but this film really connects with me. As John knows and once gave me shit for it, I've only purchased one comic book in my life, and only did so because Scott Aukerman (Comedy Bang! Bang!Michael Bolton's Big Sexy Valentine's Day Special) wrote it. So all of this is to say that I could easily be talking out my ass here, but The Dark Knight gets to the core of both Batman and Gotham City. I like the gritty realism--the mob controlled banks and businesses, the corrupt cops, the copycat vigilantes. There's some nice world building in this, and in the trilogy in general (love the return of Cillian Murphy). Some might argue that there's too much going on in this film, but I feel it's all balanced pretty well. Maybe it works for me because my attention span is getting shorter and shorter. The pacing of this is fast as hell.

The cast is phenomenal, from top to bottom. I won't shit on Katie Holmes' acting, but Maggie Gyllenhaal is a welcomed addition; she really suits the role of Rachel Dawes. Gyllenhaal gets you to believe that Rachel is a smart and talented prosecutor, and that she cares deeply for Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent in different ways. I also like that Rachel calls Bruce out on his shit, telling him, "Don't make me your one hope for a normal life." She also doesn't fall for Bruce's "wait for me" bullshit. She is her own person.

I also really enjoy Eric Roberts in this. Up until 2008, the only familiarity I had with him was thanks to a joke on South Park. This was his Travolta-style comeback, and those redemptive moments are always nice to see.

Some of the best written scenes are those between Christian Bale and Morgan Freeman, and Bale and Michael Caine. The Bale/Freeman scenes have some lovely banter that will always make me smile. The Bale/Caine scenes have a lot of that as well, but my favorite thing about their interactions is that they hit on one of the best themes in the film--which is that of an existential Batman. The graveyard shift as a masked vigilante takes a huge toll on Bruce, mentally, physically, and emotionally. He wants Harvey Dent to take over so that Gotham will have "a hero with a face," and also a hero who's actually passed the Bar Exam and isn't just a masked man who felt it was his right to take justice for himself.

I like that this movie actually labels a white guy as a terrorist. You won't hear that on CNN. Those Joker "terrorist videos" are well done, and really amp up the tension. I actually find it to be a little scary when Heath Ledger barks, "LOOK AT ME!" at the fake Batman.

The film also has two amazing action sequences: 1) Batman's capture of Mr. Lau in Hong Kong, and 2) the car chase sequence where the cops are trying to safely move Harvey Dent across the city. The flipping of the tractor trailer is a very impressive stunt, and it's a great way to end that entire sequence.

Sorry to save all of the criticisms for the end. You guys probably wanted to read that and then move on. I'll give most of the dialogue in this movie a pass because it is based on a comic book, but some of it is cringe-worthy--especially during the film's worst sequence, the two boats carrying civilians and criminals, respectively. The less I say about that, the better. Also, the fact that the expression, "close to the vest," rather than the more common, "close to the chest" is said twice in reference to two completely different characters is absolutely insane.

At different points, The Dark Knight also suffers from some of the same sloppy editing that plague all of Christopher Nolan's films.

Sometimes Christian Bale's Batman voice doesn't work; for example, when he says, "I'm not wearing hockey pads;" it's almost impossible to hear that clearly. We'd make jokes back in the day about alternative lines like, "I'm not wearing underpants." But mostly I like the choice Bale, or whomever, made; obviously the voice has been heavily parodied, but it makes sense for Bruce Wayne to be in full disguise, vocals included.

The hearing or trial for Maroni (Eric Roberts) near the beginning of the movie is very silly. Maroni's lackey on the stand pulls a gun on Harvey the middle of court! No one patted that guy down?? And then Harvey Dent tells Maroni that if he wants to kill him, he should "buy American." That's some crazy, inexplicable shit.

When I rewatched The Dark Knight this week, I still found it to be very entertaining. When I make changes to my top 100, I'll probably move a few movies ahead of this one, but I don't think I would take it off my list. Brandon commented on my Fountain post arguing that Darren Aronofsky needs a writer. I think that's more than fair. That same rule could easily apply to Christopher Nolan, but I almost admire how ambitious the guy is. He doesn't always succeed, but the good ultimately outweighs the bad for me.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • This is the only Christopher Nolan movie in my top 100, which is a little surprising to me. The Nolan fanboys suck, but I still admire the guy and will defend him. I had Memento on here at one point but then I rewatched it and kicked it off this list. I still like Memento, but not as much as I once did; Guy Pearce just wasn't doing it for me this time. I considered adding Inception to my list; it's certainly sloppy like his other work, but is arguably his best film. I'm excited for Dunkirk.
  • Speaking of movies I removed from my top 100, I also took another Morgan Freeman movie off--Seven--though I didn't remove it for the same reason as Memento. I love Seven and David Fincher is my boy; I just thought about it and realized that I probably wouldn't have much to say. It's an honorary top 100 pick and will definitely be on my 101-200 list.
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal will make one more appearance on my list, albeit thanks to a small role.
  • This is it for everyone else in the cast. There are some good Christian Bale movies that didn't crack my top 100. In the Company of Men was on my Netflix DVD queue before I cancelled it. I grew up with and enjoyed 10 Things I Hate About You. That's probably my other favorite Heath Ledger movie. It's been a while since I've seen Brokeback Mountain.

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