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Darkness visible

The new Batman movie isn’t a radical overhaul like its predecessor. Instead, like other filmmakers who’ve successfully reworked genre staples, Nolan has found a way to make Batman relevant to his time, writes Manohla Dargis.

india Updated: Jul 22, 2008 22:27 IST

Dark as night and nearly as long, Christopher Nolan’s new Batman movie feels like a beginning and something of an end. Pitched at the divide between art and industry, poetry and entertainment, it goes darker and deeper than any Hollywood movie of its comic-book kind largely by embracing an ambivalence that at first glance might be mistaken for pessimism. But no work filled with such thrilling moments of pure cinema can be rightly branded pessimistic, even a post-heroic superhero movie like The Dark Knight.

It helped that Christian Bale, a reluctant smiler whose sharply planed face looks as if it had been carved with a chisel, slid into Bruce Wayne’s insouciance as easily as he did Batman’s suit.

The new Batman movie isn’t a radical overhaul like its predecessor. Instead, like other filmmakers who’ve successfully reworked genre staples, Nolan has found a way to make Batman relevant to his time, 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, Nolan has turned Batman into a villain’s sidekick.

That would be the Joker, of course, a demonic creation and three-ring circus of one wholly inhabited by Heath Ledger. Ledger died in January at age 28 from an accidental overdose, after principal photography ended, and his death might have cast a paralysing pall over the film if the performance were not so alive. But his Joker is a creature of such ghastly life, and the performance is so visceral, creepy and insistently present that the characterisation pulls you in almost at once. When the Joker enters one fray with a murderous flourish and that sawed-off smile, his morbid grin a mirror of the Black Dahlia’s ear-to-ear grimace, your nervous laughter will die in your throat.

A self-described agent of chaos, the Joker arrives in Gotham abruptly, as if he’d been hiding up someone’s sleeve. He quickly seizes control of the city’s crime syndicate and Batman’s attention with no rhyme and less reason. Ledger, his body tightly wound but limbs jangling, all but disappears under the character’s white mask and red leer. Licking and chewing his sloppy, smeared lips, his tongue darting in and out of his mouth like a jittery animal, he turns the Joker into a tease who taunts criminals and the police, giggling while he-he-he (ha-ha-ha) tries to burn the world down. He isn’t fighting for anything or anyone. He isn’t a terrorist, just terrifying.

Like any number of small- and big-screen thrillers, the film’s engagement with 9/11 is diffuse, more a matter of inference and ideas (chaos, fear, death) than of direct assertion. Still, that a spectacle like this even glances in that direction confirms that American movies have entered a new era of ambivalence when it comes to their heroes — or maybe just superness.

In and out of his black carapace and on the restless move, Batman remains a recessive, almost elusive figure. With his eyes dimmed and voice technologically obscured, Bale, who’s suited up from the start, doesn’t have access to an actor’s most expressive tools. (There are only so many ways to eyeball an enemy.) Yet by giving him rivals in love and war, Nolan has also shifted Batman’s demons from inside his head to the outside world.

In its grim intensity, The Dark Knight can feel closer to David Fincher’s Zodiac than Tim Burton’s playfully gothic Batman, which means it’s also closer to Bob Kane’s original comic and Frank Miller’s 1986 reinterpretation. That makes it heavy, at times almost pop-Wagnerian, but Ledger’s performance and the film’s visual beauty are transporting. He’s just a clown in black velvet, but he’s also some kind of masterpiece.

The New York Times