Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Rated PG-13.
Even if The Dark Knight
didn’t represent Heath Ledger’s swan song, it would mark a
high point in the young actor’s brief but illustrious career. Ledger’s accent
has sometimes sounded geographically challenged when he’s been asked to abandon
his native Australian, but here he reinvents himself entirely, trading in his
authoritative baritone for a wispy nasal snarl worthy of a sadistic jester.
Unlike Jack Nicholson, who turned the Joker into a diabolical ham, Ledger plays
Batman’s most iconic foil as a demented sociopath whose very existence seems a
mockery of civilized society.
Not that there’s much that’s
civilized about Gotham City under new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron
Eckhart), who remains tireless in his crusade against the mob even as its
heavies infiltrate the police department and compromise the courts. More than
ever, chaos reigns: Jails and hospitals explode with alarming regularity while
the city’s most notorious terrorist, with his smeared makeup and freakishly
disfigured sneer, openly taunts the one man capable of restoring the peace.
That, of course, is billionaire
playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who snoozes through board meetings by day
and patrols Gotham in his new-and-improved Batsuit by night. Once again, Bale
brings scant humor to the Caped Crusader – he’s the strong, silent type,
increasingly dour as the Joker litters his rotting metropolis with incinerated
corpses – but Bale’s performance is perfectly suited to the aggressively grim
tone of Christopher Nolan’s comic-book epic, and stands in deliberate
counterpoint to Ledger’s macabre clownishness.
While Nolan’s second take on the
Bat-franchise is less cohesive than 2005’s Batman Begins, which told a simpler
story with fewer loose ends, The
Dark Knight is the more thrilling and
unsettling of the two. From the start, it drags us down to the fiery pits of
Gotham’s anarchic hell and never lets us up for air; it is a bruising,
unrelenting slice of sensory overload, a captivating spectacle as likely to dazzle
the eyes as fray the nerves.
That’s a good thing, especially
for those who see the film on the towering IMAX screens for which it is
intended. Though Nolan is guilty of sloppy editing in spots – some sequences
taper off before reaching any sort of resolution, while others are so
breathlessly paced they’re difficult to follow – The Dark Knight is never
less than exhilarating, a breakneck
roller-coaster ride with brains and heart to match its taste for brutal
It’s also a film, with its teeming
cast (Gary Oldman, as the quietly dignified Lieutenant Gordon, is just as
effective as Bale and Ledger) and dense, labyrinthine subplots, that begs to be
seen more than once.
How does it stack up in this
summer of the superhero? It is as invigorating an adrenaline rush as any
comic-book fantasy could be, and a far more serious entertainment than anyone
might expect. Beneath its dazzling surface, The Dark Knight is
a big, brooding
meditation on the moral conflict that rages even in the noblest soul, whether
the put-upon D.A.’s, whose spirit is broken by the violence around him, or
Batman’s, whose dark psyche is every bit as tortured as his malicious