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.


Bright Knight

  1. I pretty much completely agree with your take on it. However, I am surprised you didn’t mention how astonishing and dominant Heath Ledger’s performance is. He really nails it.

    I did find the music somewhat over the top in a few pivotal scenes, where it almost drowns out the dialogue (but that could have been due to the sound system in the theatre I was in).

    All in all, a top notch summer movie.

  2. (spoilers alert)

    I don’t think it’s inaccurate to describe the film as dark. Sure, the film reaffirms some faith in the plucky decent ordinary folk of Gotham by its ending, but it hardly gets there right from the outset.

    What really stands out for the viewer (at least this one) is how much things start to fall apart in Gotham as the Joker carries out his campaign of chaos.

    Take the hospital scene, for instance, or the ferry scene. Right up to the end of those scenes, pandaemonium erupts. Sure, it’s difficult to remember those portions of the film once it’s ended, but a lot of chaos reigns before order steps in to take over.

    As to the myriad descriptions of the film as a dark one – that’s precisely my assessment of it. It’s not dark in the same sense as was the Tim Burton interpretation, as Christopher Nolan has largely done away with the German Expressionist-influenced design that permeated the first two films. But it nevertheless plunges deep into the human psyche and succeeds at showing how easy it is for a human society to fall into chaos.

    The film and its predecessor manage to do this in such an unsettling fashion precisely because it does away with the German Expressionist influences and sets its story in a time and place that could just as easily be a major metropolitan city in the United States or Canada (okay, maybe just Toronto – Gotham is hardly a stand-in for Vancouver).

    So yes, there’s a tendency to use high key lighting at points in Nolan’s films, but it’s hard to deny that the themes in his work, like obsession (ie. The Prestige, Batman Begins), vengeance (ie. Batman Begins) and guilt (ie. Memento) plunge at the darker parts of the human psyche.

    The film also succeeds at producing images based on cultural traumas. I won’t say what those traumas are, but I will say that some of the best horror films out there manage to derive their terror from doing the same thing. Take David Cronenberg’s early film “Rabid” for a good example. George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” is another.

    Sorry if the post seems too vague in its descriptions. In case there’s anyone out there who hasn’t seen the film yet, I worked hard not to spoil anything.

  3. They could have dropped more than 15 minutes without too many problems. Maggie Gyllenhaal (sp?) looked like she could have used a long nap, and most of the cast were given lead roles crammed into supporting cast contrivances. That visually agravating cell phone gimmick was underwhelming as a plot device. And was it necessary to mash so many throwaway one liners into a movie straining to be a sophisticated procedural drama? Every time one of those campy throwbacks to a simpler Batman was spouted off, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

    As for the whole Nolan likes light argument, he seems to view pain as more transformative than fear and his lighting is designed to capture the pain flayed psyche. I find when Nolan has characters beating back fear, they do the right/moral thing. In Batman the innocents vs the cons at the end is an easy example. Yet when Nolan’s characters suffer mental anguish or brutal physical pain Nolan then isolates that character socially, mentally and physically from the rest of society. I find his lighting to generally highlight the solitary burden he places on characters.

    Nolan’s outcasts walk through his blinding sets beset by pain and either fully insane or at least no longer normal and unable to recover. In Nolan’s Batman the Joker meditates on the pain of broken relationships as an excuse for inflicting pain on others. When the Joker is at the penthouse party going after Rachel, even with the swooping camera work and shadows it is still an open space, brightly lit. I won’t spoil Nolan’s take on Dent. Batman’s early painful childhood loss leads to the pain of social outcast barely restrained for good and Batman gets the dimmest lighting treatment Nolan grants in the whole movie.

    Nolan offers up a visually stylish essay on the idea that pain as a root cause leads to all sorts of hideous outcomes. Just because Nolan works to make pain easy to see doesn’t mean the movie isn’t dark.

  4. I think calling the movie “dark” has more to do with the sensibility than the look of it. Alfred Hitchcock once said that the idea behind the crop-duster scene in North By Northwest was to get away from the cliche of setting suspense scenes at night, or in shadowy spaces, and bring death into a brightly-lit open space. Nolan does that a lot, an in addition he’s trying to get away from the stylized look of the ’90s Batman movies and the cartoon (where the backgrounds were actually drawn on black paper to make them look darker) by using locations instead of sets and more daytime scenes. But it’s still “darker” than other Batman movies just in the sense that more genuinely bad stuff happens (more bad stuff that we’re actually supposed to care about, I mean).

    You know what’s especially unfortunate about the deus ex cell phone bit? Batman already had a “sonar suit” in Batman Forever. Yes, with that bit, the plot literally heads into Joel Schumacher territory.

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