Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Dark Knight is a crashing bore

What was Christopher Nolan aiming for exactly when he and his brother sat down to conceptualize The Dark Knight? I say "conceptualize" rather than "write" or "script" because that's how the film felt to me: a high-brow attempt to construct a philosophical puzzle, that unfortunately, falls flat on its face. Perhaps if the Nolans had spent less time devising philosophical scenarios that are supposed to illustrate the ins and outs of human nature, the pros and cons of vigilantism or whatever else it is that they were trying to illuminate and much much more on writing better lines (not speeches, Nolans, lines) or fleshing out their action sequences, The Dark Knight could have actually worked as a movie. As it stands though, it's a boring mess -- philosophically didactic and narratively incoherent.

Let's take it one at a time. First the philosophy. It's clear from their oeuvre that the Nolans are a philosophically-inclined team and prime examples of what I call concept film makers (Charlie Kauffman also comes to mind). . A concept film, like their breakthrough Memento, is characterized by an intriguing philosophical setup -- everything else in the film is in service of that setup. Their last film, The Prestige, is more fun but still a concept movie albeit one made in a spirit of reckless fun and one-upmanship ("you want a twist??! take that! and that! and .. ")

The Dark Knight, on the other hand, as you may all have heard (and probably seen!) by now, is a relentlessly dark movie. The darkness is there literally in the film's look but it's also there in the way the film's characters speak -- no one really talks, they all make speeches about justice and vigilantism and love and death. You know, all of those Really Important Things. And there is the body count -- I think more people died here than all the other superhero movies put together! Since all the exposition was already done in Batman Begins, the earlier, and very engaging, edition of the Batman franchise (as the studios call it), the Nolans were free to play with their quirky little philosophical concepts. The Joker is an "agent of chaos". The Batman (as the Joker calls him) is a vigilante with rules. Two-face is ... what exactly? A representation of the human spirit torn between self-preservation and the community? It's all very pretentious and borderline-ridiculous.

Consider the climax. I forget how exactly this happens (and we'll get to the jumbled narrative in a moment) but the Joker has managed to wire up two boats evacuating Gotham citizens with explosives. One of the boats has civilians on it; the other has convicted felons -- and the Joker arranges to place on each of the boats a switch: if the civilians press the switch, the boat containing the convicts will blow up but they will be saved. If the convicts press their switch ... well, you get the picture. Well, all right, the Nolans want to show us the Prisoner's Dilemma cinematically. But consider what follows. The civilians debate whether they should just pull the plug on the convicts and then -- yes, you guessed it -- they put it up to a vote (Lesson: The Perils of Democracy). Big surprise - they vote to kill (Lesson: Man is an animal). And then, of course, none of them can really do it and everyone ends up alive and well (Lesson: Human nature is good after all).

What are we supposed to make of this? That man is an animal dedicated above all to his own self-preservation ... except when he isn't?! That hard times will bring out the worst in human beings ... except when they don't?! I will admit that Nolan manages to create some tension by cutting between the scenes on the two boats but the scenes themselves are so weighed down by their symbolism -- and the conclusion is so arbitrary -- that the episode, as a whole, never comes together. The same could be said of the rest of the movie.

Wait a minute now, you might say. A studio production worth millions of dollars can simply not have civilians blowing up the convicts. Or vice versa. Commercial considerations must have played a role in how the scene ends. Well, fair enough. But my point is deeper. Yes, at least one of the boats getting blown up would have been more in keeping with what comes before in The Dark Knight, more in keeping with the bleak view of human nature that the Nolans, at least, seem to have but it would have been equally arbitrary. The movie's glaring flaw is not how it resolves its philosophical conflicts but in the ham-handed way it frames them -- in the narrative that brackets the philosophy. As Bill Clinton would have said, it's the narrative, stupid!

By narrative, I don't mean things like how the Joker gets into certain places or how he seems to anticipate almost every single thing that everyone else does. That's something I take on faith in a superhero movie. No, it's something much more banal. I've already mentioned the tone-deaf dialogue. To that I'll add the abysmal exposition. The Nolans never make it clear how we moved from point A in the plot to point B (and I say this as someone who read the reviews before watching the movie). When I got home from the movie I had to read the synopsis of the plot on Wikipedia to find out why exactly everyone had to evacuate Gotham in the end. Even worse are the action sequences. Everyone seems to go ga-ga over the scene where the huge trailer-truck (with the Joker in it) turns a huge 180-degree somersault and crashes. That is spectacular, I agree but it takes a whole of 2 seconds to happen -- what about the incoherent 10-minute chase sequence that precedes it? I dare someone to sit with me with the DVD and explain the logistics frame-by-frame. As for the final climax here's David Edelstein:
Then, finally, take the Ultimate Challenge: following the climax with Batman, the Joker, more faux Batmen, decoy hostages dressed as clowns, a SWAT team, and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius with some kind of sonar monitoring gizmo that tracks all the parties on video screens. Actually, Freeman looks like he knows what’s going on. Maybe the sequence plays well in sonar.
Maybe it does! Or maybe it just needs a repeat viewing to fathom what I just called the incoherent action sequences. Maybe if I see it a second time, the movie will win me over. The first time though, I just thought it was a crashing bore.


What of the actors? I must say that I barely noticed Christian Bale in this movie. But Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart did the best they could with the bad lines that they were given. Heath Ledger, on the other hand, positively revels in his lines. But then the Joker is a concept, not a character and it somehow seems wholly appropriate for the Joker to be hanging by slender thread from the top of a building and to say "I am an agent of chaos". Ledger is SCARY. It's a go-for-broke performance that actually benefits from the movie's weaknesses. Its sad that he won't be around anymore.