You are probably well aware that the newest Batman movie, The Dark Knight opens today, and that it stars the late Heath Ledger as The Joker. This newest installment in the Batman series is, of course, set in a crime-ridden Gotham, where Batman (Christian Bale) meets The Joker, a super-villain who aims for complete anarchy through senseless violence and destruction. ("Complete anarchy" is probably also an apt description of what to expect during the film's opening weekend: slated to open on a record 4,366 North American screens, industry watchers are predicting a three-day haul of some $135 million. And it's already opened huge in Australia.) As usual, we've collected a selection of reviews from some of the country's movie critics; their take on the film, after the jump.
Nolan weaves his genre obligations into this dark vision as seamlessly as one could reasonably hope. He still has some trouble establishing the geography of his action sequences and his fight scenes tend to be a bit muddled, but he nonetheless stages a number of memorable set pieces: a winged swoop over a slumbering metropolis, shot on ultra-high-definition IMAX film; a frenetic car (actually, truck) chase that culminates in the end-over-end somersaulting of an 18-wheeler. Nolan wisely minimizes the use of CGI (even when the semi is flipped), and the difference is palpable.
The director's most remarkable special effect, however, is Heath Ledger's Joker. It's a difficult performance to rate on any conventional scale, a whirlwind of energy and effects, tics and tells, Brando and Hopkins and Nicholson thrown in a blender set to "puree" and then dynamited mid-spin. To call it compelling would be a criminal understatement, and yet it seems less the creation of a living self than the annihilation of one, an exercise in the center not holding. Even without Ledger's death, this would be a deeply discomfiting performance; as it is, it's hard not to view it as sign or symptom of the subsequent tragedy.
Ledger's Joker is every bit as disturbing as he is disturbed - tongue-flickingly reptilian, and yet disarmingly common-sensical in the way he relies on the dark side of human nature to aid him in wreaking havoc. He uses crowd psychology to endanger crowds, subverts legal niceties (wait till you see what he does with that one phone call he's allowed when arrested), and greets the perpetually self-doubting Batman as a fellow damaged soul. It's a heart-stoppingly unpredictable performance, haunted by the audience's knowledge of Ledger's death earlier this year, and rendering even darker what has to be as dark a superhero fantasy as Hollywood's likely to produce any time soon.
Nolan lets the film's spectacular action scenes seem like the natural consequences of the conflicts between characters, conflicts that build until Gotham becomes less a setting than a stage for an operatic conflict between tortured good and contented chaos. As strong as The Dark Knight's setpieces are-and they're all pulsing showstoppers of a kind not seen in Batman Begins-the real tension comes from Nolan's willingness to let that battle's ultimate outcome remain in doubt even as the credits roll. The film's capes and cowls suggest one genre, but it's a metropolis-sized tragedy at heart.
This is not because Heath Ledger died in January, though that event does perhaps add some otherwise unearned melancholy to the film. It's because Ledger's performance is so intense and so lasting; it's because despite the insane mask, it's a subtle, nuanced piece of acting so powerful it banishes all memories of the handsome Aussie behind it. The makeup seems to have liberated him: He's supple of body, expressive with only his eyes, and his voice has undulations of irony and mockery and psychopathology to it. He's an essay — in a way he's never before been, playing straight-faced characters — in pure charisma.
It's a workable dramatic conflict, but only half the team can act it. Christian Bale has been effective in some films, but he's a placid Bruce Wayne, a swank gent in Armani suits, with every hair in place. He's more urgent as Batman, but he delivers all his lines in a hoarse voice, with an unvarying inflection. It's a dogged but uninteresting performance, upstaged by the great Ledger, who shambles and slides into a room, bending his knees and twisting his neck and suddenly surging into someone's face like a deep-sea creature coming up for air. Ledger has a fright wig of ragged hair; thick, running gobs of white makeup; scarlet lips; and dark-shadowed eyes. He's part freaky clown, part Alice Cooper the morning after, and all actor. He's mesmerizing in every scene. His voice is not sludgy and slow, as it was in "Brokeback Mountain." It's a little higher and faster, but with odd, devastating pauses and saturnine shades of mockery. At times, I was reminded of Marlon Brando at his most feline and insinuating. When Ledger wields a knife, he is thoroughly terrifying (do not, despite the PG-13 rating, bring the children), and, as you're watching him, you can't help wondering-in a response that admittedly lies outside film criticism-how badly he messed himself up in order to play the role this way. His performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss.
Oh, the verbiage probably wouldn't matter if those truck crashes were any fun, but the tumult is spectacularly incoherent. Nolan appears to have no clue how to stage or shoot action. He got away with the chopped-up fights in Batman Begins because his hero was a barely glimpsed ninja, coming at villains from all angles in stroboscopic flashes. There are more variables here, which means more opportunities to say "What the f—- just happened?" I defy you to make spatial sense of the early scene in which Batman battles faux Batmen, gangsters, and the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy in a cameo that comes to nothing). If you can, move on to Level 2, diagramming the "Bat-tank versus Joker-truck versus cop car" chase. Then, finally, take the Ultimate Challenge: following the climax with Batman, the Joker, more faux Batmen, decoy hostages dressed as clowns, a SWAT team, and Morgan Freeman's Lucius with some kind of sonar monitoring gizmo that tracks all the parties on video screens. Actually, Freeman looks like he knows what's going on. Maybe the sequence plays well in sonar.
There's an undeniable sense of one-upmanship at work in this sleek, luxurious-looking production-a subtext of "Oh yeah? Top this." But for all The Dark Knight's occasionally bombastic excess, it sort of does top them all, and not only in star power and sheer number of things blown up. Nolan turns the Manichean morality of comic books-pure good vs. pure evil-into a bleak post-9/11 allegory about how terror (and, make no mistake, Heath Ledger's Joker is a terrorist) breaks down those reassuring moral categories.
Though none of the other actors comes close to matching Ledger's hideous lustre, everything in The Dark Knight is a bit more over the top than in Batman Begins. The Batman character seems to have been freshly dipped in darkness, with a new, more flexible outfit, and his raspy Batman voice sounds like a cross between Clint Eastwood and Darth Vader. His alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is even more of a smug jerk, a smooth-as-shellac billionaire who travels with a chain of fashion models on his arm.
As an actor, Bale's a bit of a stick, but at least he's constantly intense. Ditto for Eckhart as Harvey Dent, Wayne's out-of-the-closet crime fighter, his rival for the assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who takes over the role of Rachel from the too perky Katie Holmes, brings welcome emotional gravity to the part, but she's far too mumsy to be convincing as the romantic ideal of both of Gotham City's most eligible hunks.
There's no dramatic arc in "The Dark Knight" — only a series of speed bumps. The moments in the movie that should be the most dramatic are glanced over so quickly that we barely have time to register what has happened. I'm not sure the actors know what's going on, either. Bale was a tolerable Batman the first time around, even though he ultimately failed to dissolve the distance between us and that mask. Here, he tries to build on that earlier performance. In "The Dark Knight," Batman is misunderstood and mistrusted by the people of Gotham, who see him as a vigilante and not a hero who strives to protect them. Bale is slightly better as Bruce Wayne — he's such a good actor that he's capable of conveying the deepest anguish in a single, flashing blink. But his Batman, lumbering through the movie in a suit that's supposed to be lighter than previous incarnations, is a flat, dull creature, with no new tricks up his gauntlets: Playing this moody superhero, Bale has run out of shades of gray to work with.
The Joker is more than wild.
It's a tribute to the power of Heath Ledger's transcendent performance in The Dark Knight (* * * * out of four) that we can watch him, transfixed and deeply unsettled by the character's creepiness, laugh at his comic menace, and still manage to block out thoughts of the actor's tragic and untimely death. This is a career-making performance if ever there was one. Too bad it was a career-ending one as well.
The new Batman movie isn't a radical overhaul like its predecessor, which is to be expected of a film with a large price tag (well north of $100 million) and major studio expectations (worldwide domination or bust). Instead, like other filmmakers who've successfully reworked genre staples, Mr. Nolan has found a way to make Batman relevant to his time - meaning, to ours - investing him with shadows that remind you of the character's troubled beginning but without lingering mustiness. That's nothing new, but what is surprising, actually startling, is that in "The Dark Knight," which picks up the story after the first film ends, Mr. Nolan has turned Batman (again played by the sturdy, stoic Mr. Bale) into a villain's sidekick.
Because these kinds of movies are only as strong as their villains, a good part of the credit for the potency of "The Dark Knight" has to go to the unusual and unusually creepy and sadistic way the Joker was conceptualized by the Nolans and David S. Goyer (who has a story credit) and played by Ledger in what turned out to be his last completed screen role. The Joker's is a different kind of evil than we're used to, one that is harder for both Batman and the audience to dismiss than what Jack Nicholson did with the part nearly two decades ago.
'The Dark Knight' opens today, nationwide.