THE DARK KNIGHT is the aptly named second installment in Christopher Nolan’s sublime retelling of the Batman story. The setting may be Gotham City, but the landscape is that of the unconscious, where archetypes roam unfettered by the restraints of the waking world. This the realm of the hero’s journey, fraught with all the peril that implies. Since the last film, that hero, The Batman, the definite article is employed by all involved, has become the subject of intense debate. Is he, in fact, a hero, or is he a villain taking justice into his own hand? It’s that dichotomy that drives the inner and outer struggles of everyone involved as the Joker (Heath Ledger) tests and tempts the righteous to discover to what lines they will cross, with disturbing results.
Batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is still brooding privately about losing the love of his life, Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal taking over for Katie Holmes and bringing a much-needed assured maturity to the role). He’s also dealing with the new annoyance of copycat Batmans moving in on his vigilante territory, and not doing a very good job of it. He is, however, impressed with the new Gotham City D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), as is everyone else on the right side of the law, who see in Dent the hope of cleaning up Gotham once and for all. There’s a personal reason for Wayne wanting Dent to succeed. If Gotham City becomes a safe and livable city, he will hang up his cape, said cape being the only thing keeping Rachel from marrying him. Unfortunately, the universe being an uncertain and surprising place, Dent’s being too good at his job of cleaning up the streets has an unexpected repercussion. The crime lords, hurt to the quick where it counts, in their pockets, decide to fight back even more viciously than usual, and driven to extremes, they decide to use someone that even they are afraid of, the Joker.
It’s not the scars, nor the clotting, garish make-up that both conceals and highlights them that is so terrifying about the Joker. It is, rather, his complete detachment from the material world, from life itself, even, that renders him beyond simple good and evil and into another category altogether, the complete and impersonal danger of anarchy. His penchant for explaining to his victims that it’s nothing personal is entirely accurate. His job in this universe is to disrupt, the means is, and there is no accident in my using this word, immaterial. The target is order, Batman is the purveyor, the battle is inevitable.
It’s no accident that two of the Caped Crusader’s nemeses are involved in this story. While the Joker is Batman’s polar opposite, Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart), is his reflection. In dealing with the origin story of that super villain, the two sides of the man involved mirror the two sides of the Batman dichotomy: justice and vengeance. Two-Face starts as Dent, Gotham City’s crusading District Attorney and both new boss and boyfriend to Wayne’s lifelong friend and erstwhile love, Rachel. It is to Eckhart’s credit that his good-guy turn as Dent is as interesting as his turn as Two-Face, who burns for revenge on those he holds responsible for disfiguring him, leaves questions of life and death to the completely random and impersonal flip of a coin. Dent is the white knight with an unswerving sense of duty, but he’s one with a fair amount of ambition, a devilish twinkle in his eye, and a sweetly tender libido.
Ledger gives a brilliant, ferocious performance that focuses with a laser-like precision on the Joker as Trickster in the archetypal sense. Giggling with delight over the mayhem he causes with a perfect indifference over the outcome. It is such an overwhelmingly dynamic performance that is overshadows everyone else, despite excellent work, including Bale, who is wonderfully tortured, dark and achingly vulnerable. And of Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine as respectively the engineering whiz who makes Batman’s gadgets, and Alfred the Butler who tends to his soul, are the voices of conscious, also respectively, professional and personal.
The special effects, de rigeur in an action/adventure/fantasy of this nature, are are suitably extravagant, but absolutely serve the needs of the story. Car crashes,daring raids on high-rises, or even the stomach-turning prosthetics involved in creating Two-Face’s disfigurement, are less riveting than the sight of the Joker, suspended upside down from a dizzying height and giggling over the absurdity of it all, which because it is far more disquieting, is far more vivid.
Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT deals in archetypes, but it respects the emotional forces at work that make them so potent. This is a strikingly intelligent foray into the darker places of the human soul.