Bright Knight

A few thoughts about Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which I finally saw last night, nearly two full days after it opened:

• It’s kind of amazing that everyone talks about what a dark movie this is. Psychologically it’s not that dark; one of Nolan’s themes is that the decent ordinary folk of Gotham are at least as plucky and help-thy-neighbour as, say, the plucky decent ordinary folk of New York City in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man II. In fact, if Nolan’s two Batman movies have anything in common, it’s the resistance of the big city to perverse influence. This one doesn’t even work very hard to establish the crime wave that’s supposedly sweeping Gotham at the outset. Brian Da Palma’s Chicago crime wave at the beginning of The Untouchables was much more convincing. I think, nearly 20 years after Tim Burton’s Batman, it’s now simply de rigueur to describe a reasonably straight-faced Batman movie as “dark.”

But that’s actually not my main point. Visually, this is one of the brightest movies I’ve seen since — well, since the last time I saw a Christopher Nolan movie. His whole cinematic language is about unblinking daylight or unforgiving flourescent light. Whether it’s Memento or Batman Begins or The Prestige or, especially, Insomnia (warning: salty language in this very bright excerpt on Youtube), Nolan has consistently been less interested in shadow and darkness than almost any other major director. Even the scenes in The Dark Knight that take place, as if by contractual obligation, in a kind of grudging darkness are lit so you can see every granular detail of the characters’ faces. When a bad thing happens to one character’s face in the third act, the necessity of hiding half of his features seems to bewilder Nolan. What, I can’t show the whole face? It’s obvious that he wants to.

This isn’t a criticism. I’m kind of charmed by how miscast Nolan is as a director of shadow and darkness.

• The era of There Will Be Blood‘s influence on motion picture scoring has begun. Several times the (oddly, two) composers on hand for The Dark Knight, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, use detuned unison strings — a sound of pure tension that feels like it’s wired straight into your spine — to score scenes with Heath Ledger’s Joker. It’s all very high-modern, very Gyorgy Ligeti, and the obvious recent antecedent is Jonny Greenwood’s astounding score for There Will Be Blood. Again, this is all to the good: the further we get from the influence of Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, and the horrible, horrible Prince tunes that were plunked down without logic into the 1989 Batman (you’d forgotten about those, hadn’t you? Lucky you), the better.

• To me one of the most interesting things about The Dark Knight‘s first half is the way Nolan elaborates a complex, credible protocol for Batman’s working relationship with the Gotham Police Department and with his two henchmen, Alfred the Butler (Michael Caine) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). It’s been said, with some justification, that Batman is almost a supporting character in this movie. It’s a police procedural in some parts, and a Mission: Impossible movie in others, with a lot of Batman popping up at police HQ and a lot of urgent messages arriving over earpiece telephones. Nolan’s clearly given a lot of thought to how an anonymous vigilante would actually function in a city where just about his only friends are his butler and a loner cop. And it’s all reasonably credible. And then (minor spoiler), having put all that work into establishing the relationship between Batman and the cops, Nolan ensures that none of that relationship will survive into a third movie. Again, it’s all to the good: this movie has its own logic for its own moment; it’s not just another six inches of franchise salami that Nolan is lopping off.

It’s hardly a flawless movie. They could have edited 15 minutes off it without even breaking a sweat. The cellphone-vision gimmick near the end is like the worst of latter-day Star Trek, when Data and the guy with the thing on his eyes could cobble together a tachyon blah-blah-blah on three minutes’ notice to come up with whatever magic capability the episode called for. Making up new capabilities is a lazy way out of a dramatic problem. It’s much better when Batman has to fall back on wit and determination. The Bond franchise having finally escaped its fixation on gadgetry, Nolan must take care to ensure the Batman franchise doesn’t fall into the same trap.

But as summer movies go, The Dark Knight is head and shoulders above most.

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