When the closing credits rolled for The Dark Knight, I was left in stunned silence. In what is easily the best film of the year so far (and clearly one of the best in the last thirty years), director Christopher Nolan has delivered his shining star; a masterpiece that has set a new standard in crime dramas.
Oh, it’s a comic book adaptation? How I seem to forget that simple little thing. To be honest, it’s easy to forget that this complex, juicy, layered dissertation of the human condition is based on a nearly seventy-year-old character that first began in the half-toned pages of Detective Comics back in November of 1939.
The Dark Knight, unlike Superman or Spider-Man 2 (which themselves were the best of their own genre), has completely emerged from not only from its paneled source material, but has soared into skyline of cinematic brilliance.
The story picks up soon after the events chronicled in Batman Begins, itself a fine piece of work. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has taken up residence in a penthouse in one of his buildings since Wayne Manor was still being rebuilt. The final scene of Begins hinted at the movie to come and revealed a new criminal whose calling card was a simple playing card — the Joker.
Even then, the question was just who would play the iconic character. After Jack Nicholson’s campy cackle as the Clown Prince of Crime in Tim Burton’s Batman, was there anyone who’d be crazy enough to fill those very large purple shoes? Of course, we all know soon the answer to that question. Enter the late Heath Ledger.
Still somewhat fresh off his success as the conflicted, love-struck sheep herder in Brokeback Mountain, Ledger took special care to enter into the mind of a deeply disturbed, psychopathic, chilling killer who eventually strikes terror into the hearts of everyone in Gotham City. Hell, even I was afraid of this man.
To say that Ledger nailed the role is an understatement of gross proportions. His voice, mannerisms, and even his gait were honed to horrific perfection. He became the ultimate predator; the top of the criminal food chain. What’s more, he was a clear picture of the pure evil that the entire human race could reveal into one, sadistic picture. Ledger’s Joker is a mirror image; not only of the Batman, but of each and every one of us.
It’s this study of humanity that presents the exceptional nature of The Dark Knight. How bad can one man be? How sadistic? How horrible? What will it take for a man to snap — can a man who’s of the highest moral character only to be be led into the depths of depravity that would frighten even his closest friends?
This answer is revealed in yet another character, that of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent’s role as a white knight is one of utter depth; who delivers the single-most foreshadowing line in the film; a line in reference to the story of Julius Caesar, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Maggie Gyllenhaal ( who took over the role of Rachel Dawes from Katie Holmes) provides a bright spot in the film one which echos the thoughts of the audience, and ultimately brings the greatest point of tension. Her spark is just what the film needed to give the film its touch of humanity, and brings us face-to-face with far more than the “ex-girlfriend” from the previous film, but presents a difficult message for Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine).
The script, as delivered by brothers Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, is in a word, flawless. Every word, every nuance, and every scene is honed to a perfection that is as much a mirror as it is a search light into our very souls. The film presents several situations — each more terrifying than the next — of the kind of choice that would drive nearly any person to the snapping point.
It’s a study on fear, war, terror, and power. When men are driven by fear, will they survive? If we’re faced with war, what would be too high a price for peace? And if terror shakes us to the very stone core of our being, would we become the very thing we fear? Is there such a thing as too much power?
These are just a few of the myriad of questions that The Dark Knight asks not only its characters, but its audience. Batman Begins was an exploration of the masks that we all wear, but Knight is as visceral as it is a lance through the very core of everything we think we hold dear.
It’s a film that’s dark, cold, and chilling. It’s an example of just how well a story can be told, and firmly establishes the medium of film as the new literature for our time. We may never fully understand the depths to which the The Dark Knight will take us. But as Alfred opined in the film, “Some men just want to see the world burn.” Yet even in the midst of the burning core of sanity, a glimmer of hope remains in the unlikeliest of places.
Once I recovered from my stunned silence, I wondered what I had just experienced. In a very real sense, I had just seen how a single film can transcend not only the literary, graphic and cinematic world, but the very heart and soul of humanity itself.
Yeah, it’s that good.