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Dustin Putman

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The Dark Knight  (2008)
4 Stars
Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Monique Curnen, Ron Dean, Chin Han, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts, Ritchie Coster, Anthony Michael Hall, Keith Szarabajka, Colin McFarlane, Joshua Harto, Melinda McGraw, Nathan Gamble, William Fichtner, Cillian Murphy.
2008 – 154 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and menace).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 14, 2008.
With "The Dark Knight," all previous big-screen incarnations of the caped crusader—namely, 1989's "Batman," 1992's "Batman Returns," 1995's "Batman Forever," 1997's "Batman and Robin," and even 2005's restart "Batman Begins"—have been rendered close to obsolete. At last, this is the motion picture that audiences, whether they be fans of the DC comic book or viewers who still believe superhero movies are for kids, have been waiting for. "The Dark Knight" is a sprawling, densely plotted, thematically rich epic, one that works both as a thoroughly riveting summer blockbuster and a mature, thoughtful, sumptuously layered crime drama. Writer-director Christopher Nolan (2006's "The Prestige") and co-writer Jonathan Nolan have surely outdone themselves. This is, thus far in their successful careers, their reigning achievement.

Picking up a few years after the conclusion of "Batman Begins," psychologically tortured billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has continued his personal vow to save the city of Gotham from an escalating crime wave via his masked alter-ego of Batman. Despite valiant intentions and a decision to work closely with Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Bruce has begun to wonder if he isn't more a hindrance than a help to a metropolis being overrun by organized crime rings. With childhood sweetheart and assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) currently in a relationship with valued district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), himself virtuous enough to be labeled in the media as the "White Knight," Bruce must turn his attentions to bringing down the psychotic, clown-faced Joker (Heath Ledger). A meticulous thief and a cold-blooded murderer, the Joker is leaving a streak of terror in his wake, and promises to continue killing people until Batman reveals his true identity. Soon, the lives of the people he is closest to and cares the most about are in imminent danger.

Equally nihilistic, imaginative and emotionally gratifying, "The Dark Knight" is in many ways a groundbreaking triumph, and perhaps the best superhero film to date. Really, to label it as such almost doesn't seem right; director Christopher Nolan has masterfully deconstructed what a comic book adaptation can be, and to what depths it can endeavor to go to. The world in which these characters live is no different from the one we live in, and all hints of fantasy have been disposed of outside of maybe some of the gadgets that Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) creates for Batman. By taking this creatively ballsy approach, Nolan has concocted a dark and uncompromising moralistic fable that resonates all the more deeply in the viewer because we recognize it as potentially our own.

From Superman to Spider-Man to, more recently, Hellboy, these iconic saviors have always been portrayed as flawed, troubled figures who risk their own safety not only for the better good, but for themselves. Bruce Wayne, though, might be the most plagued of all, guilt-ridden over the deaths of his parents and hoping to carve away his anger and shame by becoming someone bigger and better than who he believes he actually is. In doing so, he has had to make sacrifices—his mutual love for Rachel, for example, who now knows he is Batman and also knows that she cannot be with him as long as he remains so—and has given up any semblance of a normal life. When the residents of Gotham begin questioning Batman's motives and capabilities, Bruce must stand there silently and take it. And, when the Joker hands out an ultimatum—death to innocents until Batman reveals his true self—Bruce has no way out of the predicament. For one, the Joker cannot be trusted to follow through with what he says, and for two, by giving up his identity he could very well be signing the death warrants of all the people in and around his life.

"Batman Begins" was a respectable rejuvenation of the franchise, but it was a bit too insular and low-key to dazzle. "The Dark Knight," by comparison, rights these misgivings while still remaining very much a character-centric drama. The plot is complex and labyrinthine, but it isn't inscrutable, and the way that Christopher Nolan approaches such a narrative is downright invigorating. Multiple viewings will only cement the film's strengths rather than dissipate its effectiveness. New characters, such as the Joker and Harvey Dent, slide effortlessly into the story's tapestry and feel just as well-formed as protagonist Bruce Wayne. Action set-pieces are marvelous—one is set amidst the nighttime lights of Hong Kong, another involves a street chase with Bruce on his Batpod, and the high-stakes climax ratchets up tensions and moral quandaries to a breathless crescendo. All of the above, and more, serve the needs of the story instead of simply acting as empty spectacle. In taking Batman to unthinkably gritty and tragic places—not all of the central characters escape alive by film's end—Nolan leaves the viewer on constant edge. Anything is possible.

Performances match the exquisiteness of the A-list cast, with Christian Bale (2007's "3:10 to Yuma") leading the way as the moodiest of all Bruce Waynes and Batmans. This isn't a warm, lovable character, and it shouldn't be. He may try to do what's right, but he's fallible like the rest of us. As Harvey Dent, who those familiar with the comic lore know is destined to become the wayward and damaged Two-Face, Aaron Eckhart (2006's "Thank You for Smoking") is excellent, emanating a goodness of heart and soul until those things are ruthlessly taken away from him. Gary Oldman (2007's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"), as Lietuenant James Gordon; Michael Caine (2006's "Children of Men"), as Bruce's levelheaded servant Alfred Pennyworth; Morgan Freeman (2007's "The Bucket List"), as inventor Lucius Fox, and Maggie Gyllenhaal (2006's "Stranger Than Fiction"), taking over for a foolishly MIA Katie Holmes as love interest Rachel Dawes, fail to hit a false note.

As everyone who sees "The Dark Knight" will testify to, the overwhelming standout of the picture is Heath Ledger (2005's "Brokeback Mountain"). Lest all of the posthumous Oscar buzz surrounding his performance be chalked up to his untimely death in January 2008, let it be known that he not only deserves the nomination, but could end up winning the trophy. Ledger is brilliance personified as the villainous Joker, so fearless and gripping and horrifying and unforgettable that he single-handedly puts to shame Jack Nicholson's heretofore acclaimed take on the character in Tim Burton's original "Batman." Ledger is a force of nature every time he is on the screen, hauntingly delving into the diseased mind of an out-of-control sociopath with nary a wink in sight. The highest compliment to be given to this talented actor taken far too early is that he disappears so vividly into the character that the viewer instantly forgets it is Ledger he or she is watching.

In a year that has seen distressingly few great movies released, "The Dark Knight" is a near-masterpiece, marrying sumptuous style with thought-provoking substance in a thrilling blend that redefines the limits of the superhero film. Intelligent, brave and fascinatingly textural, stretching the boundaries of the PG-13 rating without once seeming to compromise its vision, the picture pulsates with an electric, brooding energy. The music score by James Newton Howard (2008's "The Happening") and Hans Zimmer (2008's "Kung Fu Panda") is powerfully orchestrated and always indelible, while the cinematography by Wally Pfister (2003's "The Italian Job") brings a welcome scope and foreboding majesty to every image. There is such a wearying sense of settled mediocrity in modern-day studio filmmaking that when something like "The Dark Knight" comes along, it is cause for celebration. By the end, Gotham City and Bruce Wayne may never be the same again. Where Christopher Nolan ultimately decides to take this story next is a genuinely exhilarating proposition.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman