Monday, July 21, 2008
The Dark Nihilist -- The new Batman movie The Dark Knight works on a number of levels -- as a superhero movie, it makes almost all that came before, from Superman to X-Men and everything else, including its own predecessor, Batman Begins, seem hopelessly juvenile. As filmed adventure/fantasy fiction, it is as compelling and ambitious as some of the better superhero(y) movies of the past few decades, including The Matrix and Dark City.
Unlike most cape-based films, it works as a movie, with an epic scope and fantastic sequences firmly, even boldly grounded by its attention to character and genuinely first-rate acting by Morgan Freeman, Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart and especially, the very heart of the movie, Heath Ledger as the first, full-on believable Joker, a thing never before seen on film, and rarely seen in the comics. You want to spend time with this Joker the way you wanted to spend time with Hannibal in The Silence of the Lambs or Dexter on Dexter, or Vic Mackey on The Shield. They're mad, they're murderous, they're the life of the party with lampshade-on-head and razor blade in hand.
And because of Ledger's fully-committed, fearless willingness to explore the both the depths of nihilism and the heights of anarchy, the movie works as a nuanced and powerful commentary on the state of our world right now. Make no mistake about it, Ledger's Joker is both living terror and living terrorism, the manic, horrific spirit of the 9/11 bombers skull-fucking Hannibal Lecter in hell after their 72 virgins failed to show up as expected. The Dark Knight's Joker may very well have infected Ledger's soul and driven him to an early end; as "The War on Terror" has shown America the gaping hole at the center of its vapid, self-destructive militaristic-consumerist ideals, so too does Ledger's cheap, terrible and unknowable clown drive his enemies -- Batman and all of Gotham's would-be knights, from Jim Gordon and the tragic Harvey Dent to the very everyman on the street (in a marvelously constructed sequence involving game theory set on two boats, one filled with "good people," the other filled with hardcore criminals) to the very edge of their own personal ethics and beyond. "Any Gotham resident who sacrifices freedom for personal safety," it might be said "deserves The Joker."
Yes, more than anything, The Dark Knight speaks directly, violently to our post-9/11 world of paranoia and sacrificed liberties. Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox is every compromised American as he lets Bruce Wayne convince him to invade the privacy of literally every citizen in Gotham in his fevered zeal to bring down his enemy. Sure, Bruce Wayne means well when he abuses and misuses the technology at his disposal to battle the terror that is waging war against him; the Bush administration claims it means well, too, when it engages in illegal wiretaps and surveillance of a compliant and complicit populace. Batman means well when he tortures The Joker for information; he's trying to save the love of his life, freedom and the safety of us all. See also Jack Bauer. See also, America. What's left of it.
Heath Ledger goes dark like Chris Carter's Millennium or Trent Reznor's The Downward Spiral went dark. Down deep, shuffling and giggling and picking scabs and demanding all in his quest for nothing, for nihilism, for lost hope and bad jokes and shaggy dog stories by way of Dog Day Afternoon; call it Shaggy Dog Day Afternoon and there you have The Dark Knight. Watch it and you'll see what I mean.
The movie is about heroism like Bush's war is about righteousness; the fact is, both are about arrogance and mindless violence pretending to be about greed and torture and terror. Ultimately The Dark Knight is only about the black, empty hole inside Heath Ledger's Joker like The War on Terror is only about the black, empty hole inside George W. Bush and his fellow war criminals. And that is why the movie, and the war, fail on an epic level.
Both are filled with murder and mayhem and good guys and bad guys and supposed good guys who act bad and very, very bad guys who suppose they are good. The failure of Bush's war is obvious and needs no explanation; it has literally destroyed the US and Iraq and thus is a perfect storm of nihilism disguised as imperialistic idealism. The movie's failure is less distinct and comes, actually, very late in the proceedings. At the exact moment Batman leaves The Joker hanging instead of cutting his throat and letting him die, the movie betrays itself and its own dedication to exploring the darkest holes we all contain. The Silence of the Lambs was an artistic success because Hannibal not only got away at the end, but got away and obviously was going to eat his own nemesis, Dr. Chilton, for dinner. Think back to the glee you took as the camera pulled back to show Chilton being followed into a crowd by Hannibal, breezy and as determined as a lion stalking his prey, his bloody, frenzied victory never in doubt.
No wonder Ledger couldn't live with what he had created; obviously neither could Warner Bros., Christopher Nolan or the people who go to see this movie. The truth of it is too much to live with, and so Batman lets the Joker live and it all falls apart. It's a marvelous, invigorating ride to the very end, but in failing to succumb to the fact that all we've seen leads only to one, dead-end conclusion and yet does not, the movie ultimately falls flat and fails to embrace its own themes and fails to answer truthfully the questions it asks. The prisoners on one boat and the innocent on the other prove the value of humanity in their final choices, and the end of The Dark Knight by all rights and very obviously should have proved and justified the death wish of Ledger's Joker by allowing Batman to take his revenge and murder the clown; it would have been fitting revenge for the death of Rachel Dawes; it would have guaranteed a safer Gotham City; it would have shown Batman his true face and his true purpose. The Joker would have found it the funniest joke of all, but because Nolan and Batman fuck up the punchline, The Dark Knight fails to be the pinnacle of art being true to itself and its own inner logic.
It's a wild and imminently watchable ride. I just wish it had the courage of its convictions.
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