“The Dark Knight” — Casts Shadows of Doubt — 3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
It is dark, indeed. And complicated through the first act when director Christopher Nolan dabs in blacks and grays the gloomy exposition for his Batman reprise. It’s Gotham, yet might as well be postwar Vienna on paranoia-inducing hallucinogens. But great irony is at work here. And it saves “The Dark Knight” from its overindulgences.   

Sadly, it also again affirms that real life is stranger than fiction. For adding the darkest note of all as evil personified, Heath Ledger’s stellar interpretation of The Joker is right up there with Javier Bardem’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men” (2007). Don’t find yourself on a bus with either of these guys.

Christian Bale stars as Batman in the Warner Bros. Pictures film “The Dark Knight”

Naturally, you can’t help but wonder how much Mr. Ledger’s untimely death from a prescription drug overdose earlier this year influences your evaluation. But after due contemplation, it’s obvious that no amount of sympathy could make the awesome intricacy of his ranting madman seem quite this spectacular.
While practically everyone in the ensemble cast—a rarity in films of such grandiose proportions—puts in a solid stint, it’s Ledger who adds a much-needed definition. The script by director Nolan and his brother, Jonathan Nolan, deals in shadows and conjectures of all shades, even as concerns Batman. The Joker is the crazy invariable.

Trust him to do bad. Where and when is another story. When we meet him, he is reading the riot act to a motley assemblage of organized toughs: work for me or else. When they don’t all agree, he makes it a little clearer. And in the process Nolan ostensibly asks, ‘Who says comic book characters can’t get shot in the back of the head?’

This is tough stuff, fully earning its PG-13 at every interstice and juncture. But its mood and sense of despair, barely contained by the parameters of the plot, prove its toughest devastation. It’ll make you hope even more that Bruce Wayne of Wayne Manor, a.k.a. Batman, will save the day.
But it’s not so easy. Pessimism grips strife-torn Gotham. We’re not sure if the population needs Batman, an exorcism or a complete analysis of its mass funk by Schopenhauer.

Christian Bale’s ever-brooding Batman is most certainly the perfect hero for this troubled, shove-you-down and push-you-around town. Talk about shades of gray and equivocation, Gothamites aren’t even sure they want a superhero. Come to think of it, Wayne isn’t exactly certain he wants to be Batman.

Trying to keep the caped crusader’s mask screwed on through a lot of high-minded, low octave dithering, Michael Caine returns as Alfred, loyal family retainer, moral conscience and once-upon-a-time storied adventurer. Also in his corner, the keeper of the bat signal, Gary Oldman is splendid as Lt. James Gordon, the put upon yet dedicated public servant.

Trying as well to stop The Joker’s reign of terror is Aaron Eckhart’s golden boy D.A., Harvey Dent. While he seems too good to be true, he’s nonetheless won the heart of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes, the assistant D.A. who will still always love her former sweetie, Batman. Many surprises await. In the meantime, everyone is so confused.

Except for The Joker. He knows exactly what he wants. Regaling terrorized victims, before dispatching them, with rotating ditties about his demonic dad and the dreadfulness from whence he sprang, his virulent disgust with humanity knows no bounds. He is the epitomic battered child, finding release through the chaos he so painstakingly plots.

Spreading dysfunction across the Gotham cityscape, The Joker has turned the populace into the spineless cowards his vanity insists they are. Putting their willy-nillyness to the ultimate test in one of many, no-holds-barred scenes, he plays one boatload of fleeing refugees against another, each with a bomb detonator.

Wisely, when “The Dark Knight” isn’t trying to inject Freudian psychology and Nihilistic Philosophy #101 into the doings, it unleashes the usual set of thrilling diversions more common to popular culture. Which means beaucoup de explosions, incessant battles, wholesale killings, and chase scenes featuring the Batmobile.

Problem is, Nolan jams the excitement in-between the somber layers of meditation like hard-packed ice cream. True, leaving us little opportunity to catch our breath heightens the action and suspense. But while the director has certainly added a textural severity to the big summer blockbuster, he hasn’t quite reinvented dramatic structure.

I like a little comedy relief with my bemoaning of mankind’s fate. Though supplied in left-handed manner by Ledger’s Joker, it is nevertheless odd when a lunatic’s vitriol proves a movie’s brightest light. Stranger still, when exiting the theater, is the urge to consolingly grab “The Dark Knight’s” shoulder and advise, “Hey, you’re only a comic book…lighten up a little.”

“The Dark Knight,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Christopher Nolan and stars Heath Ledger, Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart. Running time: 152 minutes

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