The Dark Knight: It's All True
by Maryscott OConnor, Wed Jul 23, 2008 at 09:37:21 AM EDT
Crossposted fromMY LEFT WING
Make no mistake: Heath Ledger is the star of The Dark Knight.
Everything you've heard about his performance is true, and then some; no amount of hype could possibly prepare an audience for the singular genius and perfection that is Ledger's swan song -- rightly characterised by many as on a par with James Dean's and, I would argue, far more deserving of its elevation to one of the finest performances in film history.
And forget about adding any caveats about his death upping the Ledger-Love Quotient; if he'd lived, the man would be receiving just as much attention and just as much adulation for this Herculean acting accomplishment. The tragedy of his untimely death adds only melancholic pain to the experience. That someone with such a gift, presaged by his performance in Brokeback Mountain and reaching a premature apotheosis in The Dark Knight, so obviously capable of so much, should have been wrenched away at such a moment is almost too much to bear.
News of Ledger's death upset me when it came; on seeing his name in the final credits (which elicited a deserved standing ovation from the Sunday afternoon crowd), I burst into sobs. As is so often the case, I wept not for him, but for myself -- what a desolation, what a horrifying loss. For anyone who treasures and reveres the art of acting, the closing credits of The Dark Knight will inevitably provide the background to at least a few minutes of sincere sadness.
Lest the wary reader begin to believe that The Dark Knight is notable only for Ledger's performance, let me put that notion to rest with this: The Dark Knight is, simply put (and, admittedly, largely but by no means solely thanks to Ledger's work) one of the best films I've ever seen. Ever.
The acting is superb, from beginning to end, smallest roles to biggest. Maggie Gyllenhal as Rachel Dawes effectively banishes all memory of the pitiful hack job made of the same role in Batman Begins by Katie Holmes. Gyllenhal transforms what might have been (and was, in less capable hands) a cliche -- the love interest -- into a fully realised character with an inner life and intellect not evident on the mere pages of the script. Christian Bale, doomed to overshadowing by Ledger's Joker, nevertheless imbues his Batman/Bruce Wayne with the sort of humanity and intelligence rarely seen in a cinematic superhero. The rest of the cast delivers the same commitment and vivid characterisation as the lead actors; not one moment of this film rings false.
The writer/director Christopher Nolan has with The Dark Knight cemented himself into a rarified pantheon of gifted auteurs whose names could be ticked off in seconds. I do him no disservice when I say that (as someone who usually finds herself aching for a bathroom after two hours in a theatre and thus losing the experience of a great part of even the best long films), Nolan has made one of the few two and a half hour films whose running time I didn't notice, let alone resent.
The overriding element of The Dark Knight that contributes to its magnificence is its elicitation of sheer, near-constant anticipatory terror from its audience -- said terror accomplished with not a single shot of actual gruesome violence. The well-rendered requisite car chases and fight scenes provide the only visual mayhem; but the true genius of this film lies in what it does not show. Every moment of horror and anticipation thereof occurs in spite of its never actually being seen. The brilliant score, the pacing of direction and the superb acting combine in an unparalleled feat of artistry.
So much for the technical beauty of The Dark Knight; on a level of excellence rarely seen in any modern film, let alone the "tent-pole" summer movie variety. Virtuosity of craft would be nothing without marriage to a script combining depth of characters, message and intelligent dialogue and theme -- all of which The Dark Knight succeeds inarguably in presenting.
I don't want to describe the plot (which can only be said to be a morality tale of the highest order) in any detail, for to do so would deprive the reader of the sustained sense of awed shock and wonder experiencing The Dark Knight arouses in its audience. Suffice to say that the moral human drama evinced in the action and imagery as well as the dialogue and mordant silences belong in the class once reserved for tales like To Kill A Mockingbird and Schindler's List. The struggle for connection with the better angels of human nature contrasts starkly with the sheer grotesque of pure evil in this film -- and the myriad contradictions in between.
Perhaps one day soon, after every single person who will ever see The Dark Knight has seen it doubtless in a week or two), we can return to discuss the details; I know for a fact this film will be a catalyst for discussions in philosophy classes as well as in film and acting schools.
Don't wait until the pop culture mill has revealed every possible aspect of The Dark Knight; see it before you think you know what you've been missing.