Sunday, January 25, 2009

What The Academy Got Right About The Dark Knight

First of all, for the three of you who haven't yet seen Batman: The Dark Knight, I shall be SPOILing everything.

It would be foolish to accord moral and aesthetic seriousness to the Academy's gassy pomp, just as it would be a mistake to give much consideration to a movie that even Batman fans aren't keen to see a second time. But, speaking as one such Batman fan, I've gotta say: one nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Heath Ledger as The Joker), and a total snub for Best Picture, Director or Screenplay, is a spot-on fate for The Dark Knight.

My wife and I saved our moviegoing coupons for The Dark Knight. Like most of the kids in attendance, we'd seen and loved the earlier picture, and we had great expectations for this next installation. When the lights finally came up again and the exit doors were opened, I thought the first act had been entertaining, but I stopped caring after the big truck flipped over. That topsy-turvy semi-truck (which truly was a spectacular stunt) could serve as a useful metaphor for the movie, but I think I'll switch to trains: that movie went off the rails in so many different and unpleasant directions, it's hard to know where to start or stop with the kvetching.

First of all, let me say the obvious: what a shame Heath Ledger will probably be rewarded and remembered for playing a scary clown. He should have been given the statue for the emotional depth and vulnerability he brought to Brokeback Mountain, but so it goes. Ten minutes into the movie there was no doubt his Joker was a rivetingly unpleasant creep, but his witless goons bore a striking resemblance to the paunchy extras that hung off Cesar Romero's every cackle.

But then nearly everything in this movie has a complicated and unwelcome relationship to the real world that intrudes on its fictive dream. Consider:

What happened to Gotham City? In the earlier movie it was a surrealistic world unto itself. In this movie it was unmistakably Chicago. Unfortunate inconsistency, that — very much in step with the mindset that insists Al Pacino cover his face with five pounds of latex as Big Boy Caprice while Warren Beatty only has to wear a yellow raincoat to be the supposedly granite-chinned Dick Tracy.

TDK as an extended Bush-Cheney apologia. As I watched I wondered if I was the only one inclined to see this movie through this particularly dismal lens. In the conversation that followed the movie I was told that FOX News' Sean Hannity was of the same mind, too. In the closing words of Commissioner Gordon, “He's the hero the United States of America deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we'll ridicule him for his easy malapropisms, and chase him from office — because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.” Or something to that effect. For TDK to seriously consider the larger ramifications of Cheyney-Batman's choices, Frank Miller had it right: the obvious moral foil is that liberal tight-ass Superman — not the emotionally and facially scarred Harvey Dent. Speaking of whom:

What, exactly, did Rachel Dawes have that got Harvey Dent and Batman so twitterpated? As portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhall she was delightfully perky arm-candy and certainly an improvement on Mrs. Tom Cruise. But her conflicting emotions over these two lunks, along with their all-consuming desire for her, were inexplicable, existing merely as a plot-contrivance for Dent's transformation into Two-Face. Whether she lived or died didn't much matter to me (an unfortunate contrast to Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson). When Rachel went up in flames, I was consulting my watch.

Alas, the movie still had another hour to go before it expired. By then Ledger cemented his performance as the only character TDK viewers would remember. Some have speculated on the toll this character might have taken on Ledger, but the people closest to him seem to agree he had a gas doing the movie, while his recent divorce and his separation from his daughter were the very real emotional burdens the young man was struggling to bear. As sad as that is, and as tragic as his accidental death was, it is also quite ordinary. All the more reason, I think, to get this award over with, and to return to the roles Heath Ledger ought to be remembered for.


Joel said...

I don't disagree with a lot of these points, but for me the whole package was greater than some of these flaws.

It was difficult to understand what the big infatuation with Rachel Dawes was. That being said, I at least was pretty shocked when she got blown away. I didn't think the writers were actually going to do it, and it heightened the suspense for me.

But on the subject of shock value, I do think the whole fake death thing with Commissioner Gordon was a pretty cheap stunt.

I agree the movie does lose some momentum after the first car chase. But I was kept interested till the end.

I didn't catch onto that Bush-Cheney apologia, but I did think those last few scenes were just shameless set-up for a sequel.

paul bowman said...

Hard for me to love these superhero flicks much, but they tend to be the ones I get out to see — because I have a close friend whose liberality of enthusiasm for them is a key part of the experience. As long as I go with him, I can almost certainly count on enjoying the show. But I didn't hesitate to acknowledge to him, as we left the theater (at 3AM or so — the midnight opener!) that I thought the thing was stretched out way, way beyond its limitations in story & character. What is it in their heads that makes producers figure they've got so much real material in these comic book adaptations? I don't get it.

I am glad to have seen Ledger's Joker in a theater. Wish they'd cut & concentrated the story in a sensible way, & built it around him; would've been a lot more fun to sit through.

Whisky Prajer said...

Joel - Others are in your camp. Once again Roger Ebert and I seem to have opposing thumbs. I suspect some of the depth of my disappointment is from my "coupon" mentality. We see so few movies on the big screen that when we do finally attend, we want to be completely blown away.

PB - I wonder if we don't have the same friend? Not that mine could possibly entice me to a midnight matinee. Those days are over.