Monday, July 28, 2008

Darkness in the knight

The Monk is one of the millions who have seen The Dark Knight, and one of the thousands (or more) who have seen it twice. It is, at minimum, an intriguing, haunting, disturbing and well-made movie. Indeed, it is so well made that I had to see it again to actually enjoy it because the first time I saw it I just kept wondering what would happen next.

It is NOT for kids. No one under age 13 should see the movie, period. Indeed, The Dark Knight's PG-13 rating demonstrates the tremendous gaps in the MPAA's system -- there is virtually no profanity and only a little blood, but the violence level is extremely high and disturbing without being graphic. Add a couple of "F" words or some spatter and the movie would easily have deserved an "R" rating.

Here are the basics:

It's been a year since the ending of Batman Begins. Gotham City is rebounding from its status as a crime-infested rathole thanks to the bat-man and its tough new DA, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, criminally underrated). Lieutenant James Gordon is leading his major crimes unit to perform top-notch police work and build cases (with Batman's help) against the criminal underworld's bosses who are rudderless after the incarceration of Carmine Falcone in Batman Begins. But a new leader of Gotham's criminal minds has risen -- the Joker. The clown robs the city's mob leaders, challenges their manhoods and offers to kill Batman.

The Joker is an agent of pure chaos. An anarchist and psychopathic killer with a purpose -- rend asunder the bonds of civil society that exist, and have recently re-formed, in Gotham. He has no rules and no restraint -- he's the anti-Batman. In contrast, Batman is rigid, governed by a strict code of conduct (no guns, no killing), and fears that only by becoming what he most abhors can he catch the Joker.

Entwined with this tale of order versus chaos are various philosophical musings and allegorical constructs -- will Gotham find someone who will perform the civic duty to take control of the city in order to purge it of its criminals, is Harvey Dent the white knight who will ride to Gotham's rescue, must Batman destroy the city to save it from the Joker? The action, plot, twists and twistedness do not fit the general comic book movie format.

The performances are uniformly good -- Christian Bale perhaps needed more screen time as Bruce Wayne struggling with the burden of being Batman, but again shows why even though four actors have played the role on the big screen (Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Bale), he is the one film Batman worthy of the cape. For Bale, being bon vivant billionaire Bruce is a show; Batman is the reality.

Heath Ledger is every bit as captivating as you've heard. The two best scenes in the movie are the Joker's confrontation with the heads of Gotham's underworld and his first in-person dialogue with Batman. Ledger's Joker is cold, harsh, manic, calculating, intelligent, psychotic and one of the best movie villains of all time.

Aaron Eckhart's turn as Harvey Dent is also noteworthy -- he's completely believable as the crusading district attorney who wants to clean up Gotham and turns into a monster after losing half his face (discussing more about why the disfigurement alone does not make him turn bad would reveal too important of a plot point). Eckhart is designed for the role of a smooth-talking smart professional with an edge (see his roles from In the Company of Men and Thank You For Smoking) but also shows he can be hard, bereft and bitter. Thank goodness his role is played so often next to Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes, not Katie Holmes. Gyllenhaal has the maturity for the role that Holmes' inexplicable girlishness (Holmes is only a year younger) could not convey.

And don't overlook Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. Each of whom, as Lucius Fox (Wayne's business partner) and Alfred Pennyworth (Wayne's long-time butler) help establish Batman's moral boundaries. Caine is much more than a butler, unlike the other Alfreds -- he's a friend, father, and confidant who has experience and wisdom that comes from sources other than just working for the Wayne family.

So yes, The Dark Knight lives up to the hype as a fine movie. But it's not a comic-book film. Get a sitter, and go see it without the kids.

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