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Wednesday, July 16, 2008 08:04 pm

Beyond good and evil

Ambitious, visionary Dark Knight touches on eternal themes

The Dark Knight Running time 2:32 Rated PG-13 ShowPlace East, ShowPlace West
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The Dark Knight Running time 2:32 Rated PG-13 ShowPlace East, ShowPlace West

We’ve suffered from a superhero glut at American cinemas this year, so much so that if I don’t see another costumed do-gooder before 2009 I’ll be more than thrilled. Still and all, when the dust settles at the end of this film year, Christopher Nolan’s Batman feature The Dark Knight will wind up on my best-of list. It’s an ambitious, visionary work that’s concerned with far more than a powerful outcast saving the day. Posing moral questions about the nature of good and evil and examining the dynamics of living in a free society that depends on the civility of its citizens to survive, the film explores the nature of heroism and villainy to reach the conclusion that they are not very far apart. As with most sequels in this genre, Knight benefits greatly from not having to spend time dispensing any background concerning its main character. We quickly learn that Batman (Christian Bale) has had a profound effect on crime in Gotham City and that he’s become an unofficial aide to Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman). Yet despite his presence there’s still a great deal of work to do, because organized crime still runs rampant. Gasoline is poured on the fire by the appearance of the Joker (Heath Ledger), who has the temerity to rob a mob-controlled bank. Though the task of stopping this wave of crime is great, Batman has help in his fight in the persons of idealistic District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and his assistant, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), as well as trustworthy butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) and high-tech-gadget-maker Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). As written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who borrow heavily from the graphic novels The Long Halloween and The Killing Joke, the plot is complex, gritty, and full of surprises. More an urban crime epic than a simple comic-book film, the story features its share of action setpieces, most notably the opening heist and a fatal chase scene shot on Chicago’s Lower Wacker Drive. However, the meat of the story is the battle of wills that develops between the characters. At stake is the moral fiber of a city, with beleaguered knights awash in a sea of corruption that tempts them every day to turn a blind eye. Each and every character and citizen of Gotham is forced to make a moral choice between right and wrong at some point, and though their actions may seem negligible, the sum total of their decisions decides the fate of their city, as well as of their souls. The film contains a degree of intensity not normally found in features of this sort. Make no mistake, this is not a movie for children. A great many things separate this from previous Batman films, chief among them the portrayal of the Joker. He’s nothing more than an agent of chaos, a walking contradiction as his actions seemingly defy logic yet wind up being part of a grand sinister plan. He has more than a few cards up his sleeve and as portrayed by Ledger he comes off as one of the most memorable villains in film history. This isn’t a hammy turn but a passionate, frightening portrayal of psychotic behavior. Making the character even more compelling is the humanity Ledger brings to the role, as there are hints about the character’s tragic background, which he mines to great effect. Even when he’s not onscreen, the Joker dominates the film, for we know that his plans drive every other character in the story. Much is made of the similarities between Batman and his nemesis: Both men hide a great deal of pain behind their masks, having suffered great tragedy, and each has responded by allowing his life to be dominated by insanity. Ledger will get the lion’s share of accolades, but Bale matches him. The actor knows that he’s in a potentially thankless role, but he makes Bruce Wayne and his alter ego interesting by showing the character’s hopes, doubts, and regrets. These two pros play expertly off one another and provide the film with an emotional core that elevates it above its genre roots. Although many will be attracted to the film’s wow factor, it is the human element that makes it memorable. The members of the main cast all inhabit their roles with a sincerity that grounds them, and we can’t help but become invested in the plight of family-man cop Gordon, tarnished knight Dent, or Dawes, the woman caught between two men. We relate to their trials because they are our own — the struggle to do right in a world of temptation that seems to reward the corrupt and vacuous. The Dark Knight is a film steeped in tragedy, sacrifice, and heroism, and the eternal struggle at its core gives it a resonance that makes it one for the ages. 
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