The Dark Knight – Obviously

August 5, 2008 at 3:20 am (Cinema, Kiran David)



Christopher Nolan, as lauded as he is for his various films, is for me a director who, over the years, has mastered obviousness. Being mechanical may be his second, though slightly lesser, virtue.


For reasons strange, I seem to have seen most of his films, from Memento to the current film The Dark Knight, none of which seemed to hold any resonance for me. When I mention this to friends who love him, I am told the great work is his first film which I have not seen – The Following. Somehow, as unfair as it seems, I am sceptical.


My first foray into Nolan’s work was Memento, the clever but tediously mechanical film that goes backwards because it’s cool. As far as this format is concerned I much prefer Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, however dubious its intentions may or may not be, and the fascinating Peppermint Candy by Lee Chang-Dong which uses the reverse-storytelling technique to evoke a life and a period in Korean history.


Insomnia, Nolan’s remake of the very interesting Scandinavian film with the same title directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg, was just awful. While it tells the same story as the original, Nolan’s approach to the film leaves nothing to the imagination. The scene at the end, in which the young female cop gives Al Pacino her reason for not turning him in, is a hoot. It is also a scene that defines Nolan’s sensibility.


Next on the list was Batman Begins which I will not waste any time going into.


After missing out on Prestige (maybe the film I ‘should’ see) I girded my loins and bought a ticket for The Dark Knight, the latest Nolan opus.


To be fair, at a basic level it is quite entertaining and more watchable than his other films, definitely more so than Batman Begins.


However, my grouse is the obviousness with which he tells his story. There is no subtlety, the many themes he touches upon are thrust down our throats, things that would have been implied by better directors are verbalized by his characters in absolute terms, leaving no space for the viewer to commune with the film.


On the other hand Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, the best film made on the superhero, evokes its themes in a subtle way. The visual scheme explores the darker side, the otherness of the lead character, and the psychological complexities of the supporting characters, or if you prefer, the baddies. Each of them, be it Batman, The Penguin or Catwoman, all seem to have multifaceted and sometimes conflicting natures. There is a kind of reticence that informs their actions, however blatant they may appear to be. Each of Burton’s characters seems to carry within themselves a solitude and maybe even a sort of melancholy. Burton often seems to catch them on the wrong foot, making the film a much richer and more organic experience.


Burton seems to have mastered the art of evoking the outsider, a theme that runs through all his work. He has the skill to absorb his source material and create a work that reflects his internality and vision.


Nolan’s admirers and fans keep harping that he has succeeded in bringing Batman to the real world, reflecting contemporary global issues, but he is working within an art form, however commercial, and a work without resonance is nothing. In any case, the Burton film, though set in an unreal environment, deals with concerns that interest him personally, some of them mirroring society.


The late Heath Ledger works well within the film’s structure, and is often the reason that one stays interested in the film. I suppose there will be endless debates as to whether he or Jack Nicholson plays the definitive Joker. Taken out of their individual filmic contexts, it is a difficult question to answer. However, I feel Ledger’s performance adds to The Dark Knight whereas Nicholson’s somehow takes away, derailing Tim Burton’s Batman in more ways than one.


Maggie Gyllenhaal is effective, and it was a pleasant surprise to see Gary Oldman play a regular guy. In fact, I took some time figuring out it was him! Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are, as always, untainted by any project, however banal.


Coming to Christian Bale, an actor who normally works well even in awful films like The Machinist, and whose work I’ve admired from the time he was a young boy in Empire of the Sun to Velvet Goldmine and the more recent I’m Not There ; Bale somehow falls flat here both as Bruce Wayne and as Batman. He lacks the complexity and the dark ambiguity that Michael Keaton brings to his interpretation. I believe, Bale has agreed to work on the next instalment only if Nolan directs. I hope he grows up and moves on.


As I mentioned earlier, the film is watchable, with the zap of the contemporary Hollywood flick, despite some dubious cross-cutting in the first part of the climax and a rather tiresome extended second climax with the Two-Face character.


One hopes that one day Nolan will graduate from being the Auteur of the Obvious to someone who understands the richer textures of cinema even if he continues to work within its popular idiom.


– Kiran David.


1 Comment

  1. Mary said,

    If you haven’t seen the movie and plan to, read no further into this comment for I might divulge something you’d rather not know before seeing the movie…now that I’ve made my are comments, although a bit disjointed, for which I apologize, but the movie was all over the place which causes me to follow suit here.

    I agree that superhero movies are notorious for forcefeeding themes. And if its one theme, okay, we leave like a plumped goose ready for our livers to be harvested.
    More than one theme and we all rush to the vomitorium.

    Although Heath Ledger mimicked perfectly the flicker of the tongue that Jack did, I vote for Jack as to who plays the Joker best for the one mistake Heath made in portraying his character was that there was not enough touching of the face. He pushes back his nasty rock-n-roll green tinged hair perfectly but a few finger swipes now and then across that brow, smearing the white which already was separating out of the creases of his forehead, would of won him my vote. The smeared makeup stays Maybelline perfect the entire time which I found unbelievable.

    I don’t believe the gossip rags theory that Heath committed suicide because this character was stuck in his mind. I do believe its possible he couldn’t sleep after learning how so many versions to a story can be thought up. Many writers can attest to that experience, how many of us have laid in bed all night thinking about the many versions a line or scene can have?

    What was totally believable in this movie was the dialogue the screenwriters have for the Joker. Specifically the versions of stories he tells about how he got his scars. Talk to any highly intelligent insane person and you’ll hear similar storytelling.

    I thought the social experimenting was great, but could we modify the story a little? Scratch the ferry scene. Have the Joker rig up a prison and a hospital, send them detonators. Make the decision-making scenes a bit more realistic, people don’t cower and huddle anymore, everyone would be in it to protect their own skin. Keep the convicts tossing theirs out the window, but how about making some desperate diseased person convince the hospital personnel into serious consideration of pressing the button? Have Batman disarm the hospital moments before the hospital people press the button. Of course the detonators are not the triggers of the opposing group but to themselves, to which fact they learn onscreen and we see the horror cross their faces of how they almost obliterated themselves.

    And every 6-year-old who’s ever tied a blanket around their neck, hopped on their bicycle and ridden away in imitation of any caped superhero knows from first hand experience that Batman’s flapping cape was too long and would of been caught in the Bat Bike the moment he slowed down to take a curve as I don’t recall seeing a back fender. How many of us have scars on our knees proving the physics of this?

    I didn’t expect to see much in this movie, I never do when it comes to sequels, but ‘Batman Begins’ had set my expectations up a notch and I thought perhaps this one would deliver more. I was fine with it leap frogging from thing to thing – Batman actually would compromise our privacy to capture a villain? was he really ready to hang up the cape? but the introduction of another villain, that’s where I draw the line.
    Batman’s fan base has proved it’s loyal enough to have one villain per movie. Did they really have to have a sequel setup sequence? I’ll be keeping my $10 next go around solely on their obvious greed.

    oh…do see ‘The Prestige’.

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