In many ways there is little to say about this film that hasnâ€™t already been said. It is as good as youâ€™re all hoping. Ledgerâ€™s performance is jaw-dropping. It is visually arresting, with epic action sequences and an adroit deployment of CGI that doesnâ€™t override the filmâ€™s darker bursts of greatness. Complex, rich, extremely well-acted characters. Maggie Gyllenhaalâ€™s Rachel Dawes is far more nuanced and complex than the saccharine Katie Holmes. Nolan is a filmmaker whose talents are as unique as they are obvious.
Oh, and the Bat Bike kicks ass.
Still, this is more than a superbly executed action film or even the best to date of the superhero genre. This is, at its core, a message film that refuses to browbeat its audience with message. This is a story about what happens to a society saturated with and driven by fear, and about blurring the lines that separate good from evil deeds and people. Ledgerâ€™s Joker (Jack who?) mesmerizes from the moment he takes the screen, taking viewers in quite literally with a magic trick. He is terrifyingâ€”a terrorist in the profoundest senseâ€”yet driven by a nihilistic and anarchic arithmetic that seems to flow naturally and inexorably from the rubbish-heap of self-righteous order civilization attempts to impose on itself. His violent impulse is not creative or even destructive but rather deconstructive. It moves the world not by imposing an alternative kind of order but by inverting the logic of existing, artificial order on itself. How do you catch a forest bandit motivated not by greed but by the sheer exhilaration of the crime, Bruce asks Alfred.
By burning down the forest.
Running perpendicular to Jokerâ€™s axis of sublime chaos and misanthropic disgust are the triangulating coordinates of indignant justice and focused outrage of Batman (a character almost wholly distinct here from Bruce Wayne). Not unaware of the structural weaknesses inherent in the proper legal and political order of things, Batman operates within the undefined, unordered, dark space at its edges. If the question of his statusâ€”hero or vigilante?â€”vexes the residents of Gotham, none is more positively tortured by it than the Batman himself. He and Joker cascade toward each other with an elemental ferocity matched in intensity only by their tormented humanity. Both the products of cruel childhood violence, the nearer each gets to the other, the more staggering the breakdown of the hero/villain binary. Just minutes after hearing him castigate the well-meaning Harvey Dent for allowing his visceral rage to threaten his moral authority and his ability to combat terror in a botched torture session with a low-level conspirator, we recoil in horror as Batman allows his own rage to assume control while bludgeoning the none-too-pleased Joker. Part of the point of the XY-axis analogy is that the two must intersect, and as the two outlaws share the space of the interrogation room we see this convergence.
The other point of intersection is in the character of Harvey Dent who, through a cruel twist of fate, has his uncompromised and fearless commitment to justice torqued into an insatiable thirst for vengeance. As Gothamâ€™s white knight he is a symbol for civil and civilized justice that Batman can never be. His ascendancy even furnishes hope for Wayneâ€™s desire to relinquish his dark, heavy armor. As the blighted, unflinchingly cruel Two-Face, his violence is spurred by a personal sense of violated propriety for which Joker has only sneering contempt. Dentâ€™s moral reversal is Jokerâ€™s victoryâ€”by driving the public hero and bastion of moral justice and civil(ized) order into a murderous rampage of vengeance-taking, he has created a personification of the hypocrisy he sees at the heart of modern society. Iâ€™ll refrain from spoiling, but on a certain level, Joker fails by underestimating the goodness of the people his violence is aimed at ruining. But if his terroristic goal was to turn heroes into villains, he has manifestly succeeded.
In the end, that is all weâ€™re left with. This is The Unforgiven of superhero movies. The mythologies are deconstructed piece by piece, and we experience the chaotic result, the post-film, post-superhero trauma, if you will, on an almost visceral level. The Dark Knight is an anti-hero in the profoundest sense.
Cinnamon J. Scudworth