Belated thoughts on The Dark Knight
Nominations for the 81st Academy Awards were announced yesterday, and the longstanding rumors of a possible Best Picture nomination for The Dark Knight proved to be false. Since I've made it a habit to write about Christopher Nolan's films seemingly more than any other, here comes some gratuitous keyboard use:
When The Dark Knight opened here in the city, I was late (really, not early enough) and had to sit in the front row. And while front-row seats are great at a basketball game (so I'm told), not so much at an IMAX theater. When it was over, I felt like I'd only seen half of the movie: the lower half. I recently re-watched the film on Blu-ray from a less oblique angle, and seeing it on a 72-inch screen instead of a 72-foot one, I was surprised to find myself thinking often: this is sloppy. Not sloppy in the ways action movies usually are, but in all the ways they usually aren't -- The Dark Knight's action is confusing, the fights aren't particularly convincing or involving, screen direction is routinely ignored, and the hyper-realism is adhered to so intently that the movie doesn't have much "what if?" alternate-universe appeal. Gotham City is simply a re-badged Chicago, and Hong Kong is just... Hong Kong.
But on a basic level I'm not into the recent comic book movie glut -- of the dozens made in the past several years, only a few have been medium-good -- so in many cases these deficiencies work to The Dark Knight's advantage. Its weaknesses come in the same areas that most summer blockbusters call strengths, and its strengths come in areas seldom even paid lip service by its brethren. These areas are: the maturity of its themes thanks to the Nolans' script (with David S. Goyer), the palpable realism (high for a comic book movie), an outstanding individual performance (Heath Ledger), and the tense score.
The Nolan brothers won't be winning any awards for the screenplay, but that goes with the territory; writing in blockbuster movies tends to get overlooked (often deservingly so) because lots of things blow up, which begets the necessary evil of penning so many reactionary throwaway lines like "holy shit!" or "Rachel, no!!!" Half of The Dark Knight's throwaways seem to come from the mouth of an uncredited Nicky Katt in the SWAT van chase scene (although it's Nicky Katt, so he's surely parodying action movie throwaway lines with his action movie throwaway lines). Nevertheless, the film takes a stab at addressing the modern themes of terrorism and asymmetric warfare, and I would argue this societal relevancy contributed to the film's worldwide billion-dollar gross.
The movie's realism -- meaning, Nolan's preference for filming in a real city and actually doing stunts and blowing up material things instead of greenscreening and painting in pyrotechnics -- keeps the viewer grounded and engaged throughout its 2.5 hour running time. And while there is still plenty of CGI -- the wire-snagged police chopper in particular looks iffy -- the Theory of Hyperrealism applied throughout the film bothered me, in that Bruce Wayne drives a Lamborghini and Lucius Fox jokes about his three-button suit being "a little nineties." If the story is taking place in a fictional Gotham City, why do we have brands and trends from our current world? Maybe the Batman comic books were always like this -- I haven't read any of them -- but I found it occasionally discombobulating. Other than the bat-gadgets and Two Face's charred countenance, in fact, the furthest departure the movie takes from our own reality is in its depiction of the Russian ballerinas Wayne takes yachting, who are too well-fed and top-heavy to be plausibly proficient at prancing around in tutus.
Hanz Zimmer and James Newton Howard's persistent score -- very rarely are there stretches of the film sans music -- give every moment of the movie palatable tension, and their division of duties -- Zimmer on the aggressive themes for the Joker (a perfectly grating electric cello) and Newton Howard on the softer themes of (early) Harvey Dent -- works to perfection. It's impossible to judge how much a score contributes to a film's success (artistically and/or commercially), but in the case of The Dark Knight, it's more than a lot.
And, of course, there is Heath Ledger's performance; it's impossible to even recognize him from earlier movies like 10 Things I Hate About You. I was one of the doubters when I first heard he'd be reprising Jack Nicholson's great-in-its-own-right portrayal of the Joker, but I was enthralled by his performance. If he were still alive he'd be every bit as deserving of the Oscar; the fact that he basically killed himself in the role unfortunately guarantees the Oscar come March. A truly saddening way to win for a deserving performance, one that would've been a turning point in his career.
I can't really comment on whether The Dark Knight should've been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, given I rarely agree with the Academy's choices anyway. If it were up to me, in addition to Ledger's performance, the score would be nominated. As for best picture, best director, or best screenplay, no. But one could certainly make the case that it was one of the most interesting films of the year -- and, the premature death of one of its stars notwithstanding, that's a rare occurance indeed for a summer blockbuster.