Gushing for Gotham
July 29, 2008
I wasn’t going to comment on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which I saw over the weekend, but the level of cooing and gushing among reviewers has been so extraordinary a note of dissent seems in order. Having been led to expect a work of profound genius and “one of the year’s most haunting cinematic experiences,” I was puzzled to find a serviceable popcorn movie, albeit one with pretensions and a serious lack of focus. There are, of course, some great set pieces, most notably one involving cables, improbable physics and a somersaulting truck. And the scene with Heath Ledger’s Joker dressed as a nurse is, for several seconds, positively surreal. In fact, taken individually, there are plenty of fine components. But the overall impression is of Nolan shovelling in as many plots and themes as possible in the hope that some of them would resonate, by chance, apparently.
There’s the rise of Gotham’s shining prosecutor, Harvey Dent, whose subsequent moral corruption and reinvention as Two-Face is erratic and unbelievable even on its own terms, based as it is on the demise of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s underwritten love interest (about whom we scarcely care) and the implausible misplacing of blame. There are several subplots involving the mob’s money, ferryboats and bombs, high-tech surveillance, copycat vigilantes and the attempted blackmail of Bruce Wayne, though none of these asides amounts to very much. A third deranged villain, the Scarecrow, makes a brief appearance for no discernible reason, and then inexplicably vanishes from the plot. There are some nods to contemporary terrorism, rendition and torture, and the age-old question of how to fight evil without becoming a monster. But a refusal to follow through with most of these ideas leads to a glib ambiguity. Nolan seems determined to have it all ways, while committing to none in particular. Batman is supposedly a creature of great purpose, but his moral logic is often unclear and confused, as when he’s repeatedly told that by “provoking” terrorists he’s responsible for the deaths of innocents – a lie which he apparently believes. Thus, for much of the film, we have something close to a Guardian-reading Batman, which is hardly the stuff of heroism, or indeed gripping cinema.
That said, The Dark Knight is nothing if not busy, though it’s not always clear why. Even the repetitive fight scenes are framed so tightly and cut so quickly it’s difficult to tell who’s doing what to whom. There’s just lots of stuff… happening. And, after the first ninety minutes or so, the whole thing begins to lose focus badly and buckle under the weight of undeveloped ideas. With so much to plough through, there’s little room to establish the assumed poignancy on which the final act depends, which leaves the closing scenes oddly flat and undramatic. At the screening I attended, the last hour took its toll and glancing furtively at watches became an audience pastime. In an attempt to overwhelm the audience with sheer volume of characters and material (and a two-and-a-half-hour running time), Nolan fumbles the final payoff. Several reviewers have hailed the film as “primeval and exhilarating,” “the most intelligent blockbuster movie ever made,” and a dark epic that “leaves you wanting more.” But, for me, great films are the ones I want to see again. And I don’t want to see The Dark Knight again.
See Iron Man instead. Seriously. It’s funnier, better paced, and, mercifully, much shorter.