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the dark night

The Dark Night
Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Monique Curnen

Joanne Ross

August 15, 2008


In the movie version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountain Head, the antagonist Ellsworth Toohey reveals his contempt for humanity:  “I play the stock market of the spirit and I sell short.” Nothing less than the spirit and soul of an entire city and three men in particular hang in the balance in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night, his second entry in the new Batman franchise.

The story and the character of Batman have traveled a long road in television and film. First, as the campy, way over the top television incarnation which angered fans of the comic book series. Then came Tim Burton’s dark, stylish, yet cartoonish interpretation of the caped crusader, followed by Joel Schumacher’s two dismal efforts. And now Batman continues his/its evolution into something far away from its comic book origins. Batman isn’t a cartoon anymore. If the adaptation of comic book characters into film could be considered a genre, then with The Dark Knight, Nolan brings the genre into its revisionist phase. And that’s a very good thing.

Were they alive today, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung would have a field day with this movie because it touches on the dynamics of psychology, archetypes, and the shadow self.

Batman continues his quest to clean up Gotham City. He is aided again by the stalwart Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the zealous new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the city’s hero and only hope for restoring sanity. Also in the fight are Rachael Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal); Alfred (Michael Caine), and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Together, they believe that Gotham City can break through the darkness to see the dawn again.

Rounding up criminals and discouraging copycats represents a typical day in the life of a crime fighter. However, this time, Batman has his work cut out for him. There’s a new menace in town unlike anything seen before.  Gotham City has had a psychic belly ache and belched—enter The Joker (Heath Ledger). Unlike the mobsters and gangs holding Gotham hostage, money, greed, and power don’t drive The Joker. He personifies Freud’s id in all its unbridled glory, propelled by the “pleasure principle”--the pleasure of inflicting death and annihilation. Chaos is his raison d'être.

Batman’s pursuit of the Joker is not merely an act of law and order. In confronting The Joker, Batman is in effect confronting the dark shadow side of himself. The Joker laughingly says to Batman: “Kill you? I don't want to kill you! What would I do without you? . . . No, no, you... you complete me.”

Nolan’s film is an epic struggle, not in the conventional sense of good and evil, but between the self and it’s shadow, the nature of duality--the individual self (Bruce Wayne/Batman, Harvey Dent/Two Face, and Batman/The Joker) and the collective self (Gotham’s city’s law-abiding citizens/the mobsters). The Joker is convinced human beings are immanently corruptible and stages a “social experiment” to prove his point. Just how far are Batman, Gordon, and Dent willing to go to stop him?

The Dark Knight boasts thrilling, hyperkinetic action sequences, violence, high tech gadgetry, and mindboggling special effects befitting the adventures of a super hero. But those elements are the only nod to Batman’s comic book beginnings. The core of this movie is pure drama and high-stakes suspense—with true heart, raw emotions, and profound themes and subtext. 

The performances are truly exceptional, some of the finest I’ve seen this year. Bale had the task of conveying a conflicted man, torn by guilt and doubt, and does it believably. Caine’s Alfred—Wayne’s conscience—is drawn with great wisdom, dignity, and insight. And Freeman imbues Lucius with quiet sincerity and steely conviction.

However, it is Oldman, Eckhart and of course, the late Heath Ledger who rise above the rest and impress with their artistry.  The prize for brilliance must go to Heath Ledger, who climbs into the skin of a maniacal force of nature. If I had not known ahead of time that Ledger was cast in the role, I would not have recognized him, so complete was his transformation, inside and out.

It is to Nolan’s credit that the visuals coexisted with and enhanced the drama. Very often overreliance on action, violence and special effects so evident in movies today can bury story and characters. That didn’t happen here, thank God. The Dark Knight is an ambitious work masterfully realized—entertaining, thought-provoking, and ultimately moving because Nolan’s kept his focus on the human drama.*-JR


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