The Dark KnightDirected by Christopher NolanStarring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart and Maggie GyllenhaalRated PG-13*9*
Goes well with: Batman Begins, Spiderman II, HeatThere are two truly phenomenal performances in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's new Batman installment. The first is Heath Ledger's as The Joker, Batman's longtime-forever arch-nemesis. Much will be read into his final turn, because it almost hurts to watch him working from a place that's so deeply painful and terrifying. But you're watching an artist at the top of his craft. Whether his performance contributed to his death is debatable, sure, but also speculative. What isn't conjecture is what a brilliant performance it is, as Ledger gives The Joker a true insanity, a malevolence born out of distrust in human nature coupled with psychopathic brutality. He is a greasy, shambling mess—villainous, alone and determined to destroy all that is good. Not for money. Not for fame. Only, as Alfred (Michael Caine, making the most of his short scenes) says, to watch it all burn.
The other star of the show isn't, as you might suspect, Christian Bale. Bale is a fine actor, but he isn't given nearly as much to work with this time. Bruce Wayne was a tortured soul in Batman Begins, but with the origin story out of the way, Batman is more gristle and grit, a deep-voiced well of anger and violence. Nor is it Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is fresh and appealing as she steps into the shoes Katie Holmes vacated for Scientology slippers, or Aaron Eckhart, who summons up his enormous chin as Gotham City's new crime-fighting district attorney, Harvey Dent. All of them, along with Gary Oldman as the once-and-future Commissioner Gordon, are solid, well-served by an epic screenplay that's more than just the struggle of good versus evil and the dark gray spaces in between.
Nolan's script, which he co-wrote with his brother, looks at the complex nature of heroism, examining whether Batman would still be a hero if he were to break his own code of conduct for the greater good. In Batman Begins, he couldn't wait to kick criminal ass, but here, being Batman means he lives in a world that needs Batman, and we'd all be better off if it didn't. With that in mind, the movie wears its 9/11 allegories on its sleeve—what do we consider acceptable in confronting an enemy like The Joker, who is outside our frame of reference and who we simply cannot begin to understand.
Still, aside from Ledger, The Dark Knight's other huge star is the IMAX screen on which it should be seen.
Half-a-dozen sequences and a number of establishing shots were made with the massive 70-mm lens, and the effect lends depth to a film that already feels like a modern epic. It's worth the extra price of admission or the extra gas money to see this film the way it was meant to be seen (the local Imax theater is the Edwards Mira Mesa). The level of detail is extraordinary, and a proper sound system ensures an undercurrent of dread, angst and excitement, giving the film a kinetic crackling that keeps you desperately waiting for a collection of volatile characters to collide and either bounce off one another or explode. It's almost a visceral sensory overload of emotion and violence, far more adult than its PG-13 rating would have you believe, and though this is a very well-made, very well-written, very well-acted film, it's the Imax immersion that turns it into something entirely unique.
Perhaps most importantly, The Dark Knight embraces the dark nature that has enveloped Batman in recent years. The stakes are higher than in the original, as the decency of humanity is put to the test by a true villain, without which there would be no need for a superhero. Ironically, as an agent of chaos and anarchy, Ledger's Joker is quite the planner. But more importantly, he's the laughter and lawlessness to Batman's dark justice, each of them terribly alone, representing opposite sides of a two-faced coin.
“What would I do without you?” Ledger croons in the film's later moments. “I think we're destined to do this forever.”