Hey folks, remember this?
And then my full-blown homage for the midnight screening? (Taken in the bathroom by myself, thank you very much.)
Newcomers to my blog, that is me. Maybe it’s not the best first impression, but oh well. I embraced my inner freak in honor of Heath Ledger. This is me before the midnight screening of The Dark Knight, some time during the 11 p.m. hour on July 17, 2008. I was, surprisingly, one of very few people who dressed up or otherwise made themselves really visible in a crowd for the sake of the film. I was damn proud, though. And I looked good. In fact, I believe I was the only female with Joker make-up on at all. I was certainly the most drastic. How cool of a chick am I?
It’s over 7 months later. In that time, The Dark Knight became the second highest-grossing film of all time and an instant classic (check its prestigious place on the IMDB Top 250), and Heath Ledger posthumously OWNED awards season, capping it off with his much-deserved Oscar on February 22nd (exactly 13 months from this death). And…we get to the heart of this ridiculous review postponement…literally. When I typed out Heath Ledger’s name, my heart skipped a beat, and it feels like a bunch of bats are flapping around in my stomach. I had to accept that he was really gone a long time ago. I did it in the form of a written tribute, which you can check out here. It took me awhile to write that after he died, but nowhere near as long as it’s taken me to write this review. To write this review, I would have to face it all over again…rip off the still-fresh scab and mourn him once more in a major way. Every letter I type is a knife to my heart. Once you see how long this review is (and maybe that’s your warning to get out now if you’re not up for it), you’ll understand why my heart has more holes than Shia LaBeouf.
I saw The Dark Knight a few times in theaters (once in IMAX - it was I-MAZING). No review. And then time passed. Well, it had to be totally fresh in my mind, so I wanted to wait until I could see it again before writing about it. I owed it to the film and to Heath. So, I waited until December, when it was released on DVD. I watched it again. No review. I saw more movies and didn’t believe I could write the review and do it justice until I sat down and watched it AGAIN. It continued this way for awhile. I wanted to watch it on the one year anniversary of Heath Ledger’s death, which, incidentally, was also the day he was nominated for an Oscar for his role in The Dark Knight. I thought it would be perfect to post my review that day. But it didn’t happen. At the very least, I wanted to post something, even just a picture of him and a few words saying how much we still missed him a year later, that he had never left my thoughts or my heart, to congratulate him on his achievement, and to thank him for being him. I couldn’t even do that. I couldn’t even put up a simple post. I regret it so much. I feel like I failed him. I’m sorry, Heath.
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen The Dark Knight at this point. Almost ten maybe? Like Rachel Dawes and her legal briefs, I know this film backwards now. I kept insisting that I couldn’t write my review unless I had JUST watched it, so I was able to procrastinate for a long time. I really wasn’t doing it consciously. I sincerely believed that it couldn’t be done any other way. I still believe that my multiple viewings will help this review, but I probably could have done it just as well long ago. Who knows? It doesn’t matter. And I HAVE, incidentally, watched it recently (most of it anyway), just before the Oscars. I haven’t finished it, but you know what? I think I’m ready anyway…if the tears will only stay out of my eyes long enough. I was mainly re-watching it so that I could document Heath Ledger’s performance as vividly and with as much detail as he brought The Joker to life. But honestly, every second of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight was indelibly burned into my very being on that first viewing at midnight over 7 months ago. Well, this one’s for you, Heath. Now, a deep breath, and here…we…go.
The Dark Knight is not a “superhero movie”; it is a film drama that contains action and suspense and just happens to have a superhero in it. It is a transcendently perfect, and dare I say the only, example of the fusion of blockbuster and art. Titanic had the numbers but not really the elements of a blockbuster. The Dark Knight looks like a blockbuster, sounds like a blockbuster, and continues to have the success of a blockbuster, but it also has serious artistic credibility. You’re a wizard, Christopher Nolan. Tim and Joel who? Nolan’s Batman films are THE definitive Batman films, and The Dark Knight easily surpasses the didn’t-think-it-could-get-any-better superbness of Batman Begins. As for a third film…well, it will be hard for Nolan to top The Dark Knight, let me just put it that way. I don’t know if he should even try, but that’s a discussion for another time and place. In The Dark Knight, the stakes are higher. People and things matter, souls are bruised, damaged, and constantly at risk, and there’s enough pathos and neuroses to fill, nay, overflow Lake Michigan. It is worthy of what is perhaps my favorite adjective to describe a film. It is…wait for it…delicious.
Initially, I thought the plot was unnecessarily convoluted and a tad boring. I am no longer of this opinion. When you see a midnight screening, or any packed screening but especially the midnight one, you have to be prepared to miss about 55% of the dialogue due to boisterous audience reaction. And it’s okay, it’s just part of an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Usually, though, this necessitates a second viewing. If you care enough to see the midnight showing, you’re probably not just going to see the movie once in theaters anyway. The Dark Knight has a lot of dialogue that explains the plot, so if you miss a significant portion of it, you have a problem. You‘re bored, lost, or screwed. On that note, I have to congratulate Nolan and company, yet again, for making a blockbuster in which the story challenges you and rewards diligent watching. They so could have been lazy about it. The story could have been total crap, and the film would have made just as much money. I appreciate the effort so much, and with each subsequent viewing, I’ve only admired the story more and more. Everything clicks together in gloriously labyrinthine fashion.
Since everyone has seen The Dark Knight (I heard Osama bin Laden got a Blu-Ray player just to watch this film) and given my description of the plot as “labyrinthine,” I’m going to do something that is against every fiber of my being as a critic and NOT summarize the plot. Stop it, nagging stomach monster! I just think my time is better utilized elsewhere in this review. The themes that are explored within the plot are epic, timeless, and rooted in the deepest literary traditions: good versus evil, sanity versus insanity, law versus anarchy, order versus chaos, morality (“Know your limits, Master Wayne”), corruption, greed, mortality, honor…just to name a few. I love how deep this film goes, and how brazenly it does so. See? It IS possible for a summer blockbuster to make you think.
I think Chicago is the greatest city in the world; the fact that it also doubles as Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City is simply icing on the cake. The Dark Knight utilizes Chicago to previously untapped awesome potential. I don’t think anyone has ever captured its essence on film better than Christopher Nolan. I practically burst with pride knowing that I can look at the film and go, “That’s MY city.” I recognize the landmarks. I’ve seen those views. I’ve been to those places. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Christopher Nolan…they were HERE. My feet have walked the same ground. I’ve probably stood in some of the very same spots. I remember stalking this one desolate shooting area a couple summers ago for HOURS, taking more laps than a NASCAR driver, waiting oh-so-hopefully for someone to emerge from a trailer, and being okay with it when no one did because I could feel them there. I was a part of it, even for the smallest moment in time. What a rush. Christopher Nolan, director of photography Wally Pfister, production designer Nathan Crowley, set decorator Peter Lando, and a team of art directors turned Chicago into a Gothic Gotham wonderland worthy of F.W. Murnau or the most Expressive Germans. Sweet home Chicago, baby.
If the film didn’t look good enough already, check out the visual effects. The chase scene with The Joker (in a semi), Batman (in the Batmobile-turned-Batpod), and Harvey Dent (in an armored police truck) is one of the best action sequences ever. Period. It’s SO exciting and masterfully choreographed. The seamless blending of visual effects trickery and actual stunt work (That’s a real truck that flips over! And I KNOW that street!) is mind-blowing. This is the power of moviemaking, its ability to inspire awe and create magic. The truck flipping over and barreling down the street at the screen is the Lumière Brothers’ 1895 film The Arrival of the Train: Redux. You can witness the history of cinema unfolding as you watch The Dark Knight, and it’s thrilling.
The editing looks effortless (though I know it couldn’t have been easy!), the sound design is impeccable (the sounds of Gotham penetrate the darkest recesses of your mind), the script by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan (with story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer) is marvelous and should have been nominated for an Oscar, just like Christopher Nolan (especially) should have been for his directing. Let’s be real - The Dark Knight got the shaft at the Oscars (The Lord of the Rings but NOT The Dark Knight? Come on, people!). Christopher Nolan is present in every frame of the film, and his command of this massive project is nothing short of Herculean.
For me, though, the most egregious Oscar snub against The Dark Knight was the random disqualification of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s brilliant and innovative score from contention. It wasn’t even eligible to be nominated! I don’t know what stupid reason the Academy came up with this time, nor do I care. They’re idiots no matter what reason was given. This score should have been recognized. It’s dark, twisted, and ominous at times, heroic and soaring at others, and always a powerful driving force that is integral to the film’s overall success. The track they created as The Joker’s theme had to do Heath Ledger and his performance justice, and it does. Man, does it. Listen:
They got it so right. All of it. What magnificent work from two amazing composers.
Acting: the final piece of the astounding puzzle that is The Dark Knight. Now, I need to make it clear that Heath Ledger is the focus of this review. For me, it can’t be any other way. I apologize to the other cast members (main and supporting); this is not a slight on you by any means. This cast has electrifying chemistry and is one of the strongest and best ensembles of the year. I don’t want to dismiss the significance and brilliance (some more significant and brilliant than others, but I’ll get to that) of their performances. I’m sorry, but the enormity of Heath Ledger and his work as The Joker eclipses the cast, crew, and the entire film. That’s where I’m at with my review, and I honestly don’t think his “Dark Knight family,” as Gary Oldman called them, would have it any other way either.
So, let me try to run through the other performances as non-dismissively as possible. Eric Roberts admirably and smarmily steps in for Tom Wilkinson as slick, charming mob boss Salvatore Maroni (Never fear, Mickey Rourke! Eric Roberts IS getting work!), Cillian Murphy (love him!) makes the psychotic most of his far-too-brief cameo as The Scarecrow. Maggie Gyllenhaal...ugh. You ARE the weakest link. Goodbye. Seriously, she sucks. She normally doesn’t, so I don’t get what happened here, but she really is terrible. Way to represent for the ladies, Mags. But Gotham is a man’s world, right? And I’m okay with that.
I feel a bit sad for Christian Bale because I think Batman is sort of a thankless role. Don’t get me wrong, in Nolan’s films, Batman/Bruce Wayne is a trillion times better than the shmuck in the other movies (especially Michael Keaton - LORD, is that man dull…). He’s a compelling character, and we got really involved in his evolution in the stellar Batman Begins (an impressive origin story, indeed), but The Dark Knight is back to being all about the villains. It’s inevitable, perhaps. Anyway, Bale’s Batman is pissed all the time (after the release of his tantrum on the set of Terminator: Salvation, maybe it wasn‘t a stretch). He punches really hard and growls more than Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. But his rage is palpable, ferocious, and utterly believable. He’s equally good when he’s self-doubting, tormented Bruce Wayne. Bale’s worthy of being called the Dark Knight.
Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are, well, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. They’re great, of course! Both are sassy and sincere in their roles. Caine brings such a dignified, compassionate, melancholy gravity to Alfred, and Freeman is commanding and noble as the smart as hell Lucius Fox. If I can be superficial for a moment (and I think I’ve done enough analysis to earn it!), could Aaron Eckhart BE any more good-looking? What a dreamboat. He has the most genuine, trustworthy face, and to play Harvey Dent, it's ALL about the face...right? The casting of Eckhart as Gotham’s White Knight is spot-on (I can’t see anyone else in the role). He can disarm you as soon as look at you (I mean, swoon! Who WOULDN’T believe in Harvey Dent?), but watch out when he dabbles with his dark side. He’s downright frightening (and he has to compete with Heath Ledger‘s terrifying-ness, so it‘s even more impressive). But Harvey struggles with his choices and morals, and Eckhart makes us care deeply about the character. Eckhart undergoes a startling transformation with Harvey Dent that is something to behold. His character has, without question, the biggest and most dramatic arc. Aaron Eckhart easily could have gotten nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He hasn’t gotten enough credit.
Speaking of not getting enough credit, I want to hug Gary Oldman for his work in The Dark Knight. What he does with Jim Gordon is nothing short of a miracle. And he totally NAILS that Chicago accent. Oh, to hear him say, “Da Bears,” just one time… I adore him. Even more than Aaron Eckhart (marginally, though - it’s a tough call), Oldman does award-quality acting in this film. I would even argue that Gary Oldman SHOULD have gotten a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He takes my breath away in The Dark Knight. He’s the ultimate good guy, but he's never a wimp. I totally agree with Peter Traver‘s assessment that he "is so skilled that he makes virtue exciting." He’s the film’s moral backbone and a pillar of strength every step of the way. Gary Oldman is so amazing that he makes me want to weep. Seriously. He infuses Gordon with such earnestness, integrity, and hope that he made my heart swell and actually did bring tears to my eyes. I just wish I could bottle Gary Oldman’s goodness in The Dark Knight and carry it around in my pocket. Is that creepy? I don’t care. He’s SO wonderful! Apparently, he’s that wonderful in real life, too:
How moving and lovely. He rocks. Gary Oldman, will you marry me?
I’m going to continue my unorthodox approach to this review by finishing the review of the film before the review as a whole is actually over. How’s that for labyrinthine? Basically, I want to conclude my thoughts on The Dark Knight as a film before I move on to Heath Ledger (gulp). Please, I don’t want this to be interpreted as me dismissing the film. I mean, go back and read, it’s all there! The Dark Knight is not one of the ten best films of all time (as IMDB users seem to think), nor is it even the best film of the year (although it’s up there). It is, however, the best superhero film/film about a superhero ever made, and a masterpiece in its own right. It lived up to the hype…and then some. Now that’s super.
Heath Ledger, it’s your turn now, sweet prince.
I think this short clip of an interview done with Heath Ledger shortly before his death is a good starting point. I’m not sure why. It feels right. It’s about how his daughter changed his life and how he feels about death. He displays remarkable sensitivity and wisdom (far beyond his years), and it’s so eerily cryptic…it just blows me away.
Heath Ledger…sigh…cinema is in your debt forever. His Joker is already being hailed by many, and rightfully so, as the best movie villain of all time. Before Ledger redefined what a villain was, Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter topped many lists (including the, um, illustrious AFI list of villains). Strike me down if you must, but I have always thought that The Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins, and the character of Hannibal Lecter were WILDLY overrated. The top 5 of the AFI list of best villains continues as follows: 2) Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho (this is Heath’s time now, but let me just say that I could probably write a dissertation about the inaccuracies or, as Norman would say, “falsities,” of that categorization in which I would tear apart that haphazard, reductionist labeling of a character as complex as Norman Bates - ugh, you test me, AFI); 3) Darth Vader in Star Wars (I get that); 4) the ever-creepy Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (I TOTALLY get that, and so does my childhood); and 5) Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (meh, okay, but I wouldn’t put her that high).
Here are a couple of the criteria that the AFI used when compiling their list:
- Cultural Impact: Characters who have a made a mark on American society in matters of style and substance.
- Legacy: Characters who elicit strong reactions across time, enriching America's film heritage while continuing to inspire contemporary artists and audiences.
Maybe Heath Ledger doesn’t have the longevity yet, but he will. In terms of cultural impact, well, he truly created a monster. Here’s what the AFI thinks of villainy: “For voting purposes, a ‘villain’ was defined as a character(s) whose wickedness of mind, selfishness of character and will to power are sometimes masked by beauty and nobility, while others may rage unmasked. They can be horribly evil or grandiosely funny, but are ultimately tragic.” Despite their grammatical ineptitude, I think they’ve got something there. The Joker’s wickedness of mind, selfishness of character, and will to power definitely rage unmasked. He is, at times, grandiosely funny, but ALWAYS horribly evil. Heath Ledger is mesmerizing and terrifying in The Dark Knight. Just like he owned awards season, he completely owns this film. He didn’t hold anything back with his performance, a performance that, ultimately, MAY have led, in some way, to his far-too-premature death.
I figured now would be a good time to take a little breather (there's a lot coming up still) and listen to Heath talk about playing The Joker, in his own words. I love this clip so much. I think it's quite poignant, and I simply adore hearing and watching him talk.
Before Heath Ledger died, people were already geeking out about his work in this film. This was a side of Heath Ledger that no one had EVER seen. You can say that about all of his work (and I love that), but this was a doozy. The first non-teaser trailer set the internet (and myself) ablaze with anticipation. Check it:
I still have the urge to squeal with cinematic glee when I watch that. And I STILL get chills when Heath growls, “Come on, hit me!“ Soon after (god, so soon…too soon), he died, and expectations skyrocketed. His death shook pop culture to its core. The Dark Knight would now be, officially and unequivocally, the biggest movie event ever in the history of cinema. It was a phenomenon long before it was released, and now, 7 months later, phenomenon is too weak of a word to describe it. Honestly, I don’t know how things would be if Heath Ledger hadn’t died. I think about it a lot, even though I hate doing it. Would the movie still be as big? Not quite, I don’t think. Would he still have cleaned up during awards season, won the Oscar and, in fact, been the surest thing the Oscars have ever seen? I have to believe that the reaction to his work in this film would have been exactly the same. I have to believe in the raw purity and brilliance of his performance. He deserved the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. I don’t understand how anyone can say otherwise. It’s insanity. If you disagree, bring it. I’m ready for you. There were some stunning performances this year, and I’m not going to pit Heath Ledger against the Best Actor contenders. It’s just not fair or productive. But in the broader scheme, in terms of impact on pop culture and cinema, 2008 belongs to Heath Ledger. He took us by storm, and oh, what a ride.
This is so hard for me to write. If you want to get an idea of how hard, please read the tribute I wrote to Heath Ledger a year ago. I have wrestled for seven long months with how I would write about his performance in The Dark Knight. I’m not ready to do it. To wrap it up. To close it. I’m actually about to cry right now, but I have to keep going. Ledger is the most primal of forces in this film. I’m a HUGE fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show), and in one season (fittingly, the last), Buffy must grapple with The First. The first what, you ask? The first EVIL ever, dating back to the beginning of time. THAT is Heath Ledger as The Joker. There is no good in this character. He is only evil and darkness. What guts Heath had to take it so far (sorry, calling him “Ledger” feels cold and weird). I’m so inadequate as a writer to describe his revolutionary work in The Dark Knight. This isn’t just faux-modesty; I really am. I can type and type until my fingers fall off, and I still wouldn’t come close to capturing his genius. And that’s what I fear I’m in danger of doing - typing forever. The best way to appreciate Heath Ledger as The Joker is to watch him as The Joker. Here are two clips that give you the glorious idea (I don’t want to give away too much for anyone who might not have seen it, otherwise I would TOTALLY be including a clip of the hospital scene, as well). The quality of these videos is not worthy of Heath’s talent, but it was unbelievably difficult to find embeddable clips from this film. Anyway, please watch them. They speak volumes. Plus, they’re two of the best acted and most intense scenes of this year or any other.
(Update, July 15, 2010: Since I posted this, these specific videos have been removed or disabled. I couldn't find an embeddable version of the first clip, so click here to watch it. The second clip can't be watched embedded, but if you click on it, it'll take you to YouTube to watch it. Do it!)
This is the kind of method power that would make even Marlon Brando stand up and cheer….or curl up on the floor and weep…or both. This is unparalleled acting. The depths he plumbs, the heights he climbs, from one moment to the next…it gives me goosebumps. Heath Ledger is unquestionably one of the greatest actors of this or any generation, but the potential he shows here makes my heart shatter. In my tribute, based on only the trailer, I said that he was acting out of every pore. It’s more than that; he’s acting out of every atom. Just look at these next two pictures and you can see it. From the core of his soul to the top of his head to the ends of his crazed hair follicles to the tips of his fingers and toes…he IS The Joker.
The facial tics, the vocal inflections, his piercing eyes, the erratic mood swings plastered on his face along with the sloppy, devil-may-care make-up, the total disregard for sanity or goodness in every word and in every gesture, and the dazzling myriad of other things that comprise his acting IN ANY GIVEN SCENE, IN ANY SHOT…tell me he doesn’t deserve the Oscar. Go on. TELL ME. Sentimental, shmentimental! He EARNED that Oscar. Come on, hit me. I dare you. Ahem… Anyway, even though my heart continues to break for him, it also soars because I am so immensely proud of him. And that’s what I want to cling to - my overwhelming awe and pride, not my sorrow.
Heath Ledger still has one film coming out (hopefully), Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, but he died before shooting was finished. The Dark Knight, then, is essentially Heath’s last role. I’m not dismissing his work in Dr. Parnassus AT ALL, so don’t mince words with me. You know what I mean. It’s unspeakably tragic that he died, but if he had to go, man…what a way to go out. To say that this is one of the greatest performances of all time (not just in cinema) is like saying that William Shakespeare kind of liked to write or that the Harry Potter franchise is a little popular or that people sort of need oxygen to live; it’s a gross understatement the likes of which my hyperbolically-inclined mind can’t even begin to fathom. His Joker is the stuff legends are made of, and even if his mortal light was extinguished painfully early, his star will continue to burn brightly as long as people watch movies (so, forever). He is a supernova, and he will be with us always. He is in my heart every second of every day. I’m sorry he wasn’t around to bask in the praise and accolades he so richly deserves. Somewhere, I know he’s been watching, and he is humbled and grateful. I imagine him looking down shyly, a small, sheepish, stunning grin on that gorgeous face. He might even jest, “Why so serious?” Because we miss you, Heath. I miss you and love you so much and can never thank you enough for enriching my life, the lives of so many others, and cinema. Alas, this has been my attempt. I did the best I could, and while I can’t ask for more than that, nothing will ever be enough to thank him. Even so, I want to say the words: Thank you, good sir. Thank you. And congratulations.
Oh, and you didn't think I'd leave this clip out, did you?
Heath, what would we do without you? I hate that we’ve had to find out. Why so serious? Because you…complete us. And like The Joker says to Batman, so I say to Heath Ledger: “You’ve changed things…forever.”
So, in honor of Heath Ledger, his little angel Matilda, who I know still feels his love every single day and who will be so proud of her daddy once she‘s old enough to understand, and this beautiful monster of a film called The Dark Knight, let’s put a smile on that face. Cheesy? Maybe. But how could I end this any other way?
The Dark Knight: ***** (out of 5)
Heath Ledger: Priceless