This movie came out before I had started the blog and this is the first time I am getting to write about the film. I said it last night when I posted an update on Facebook, this is the jewel in the crown of Christopher Nolan's Batman Trilogy. Both "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight Rises" are excellent films, but the middle film is the finest second act in a superhero trilogy you are likely to encounter. We are past the origin story and Batman is a looming presence over Gotham. The crime lords are beginning to chaff under the attention they are getting from the District Attorney, and things seem to be turning around for the city, just as Bruce Wayne wanted. Enter the Joker, a figure of chaos, who at first seems like an enemy and then a potential ally to the underworld kingpins, but looks are deceiving, as we will be reminded on a regular basis.
The opening set piece with the daytime heist of mob money from one of the banks secretly controlled by the criminal elements of the city, is a terrific starting point. The crime is filled with audacity in execution and violent subterfuge by the man who planned it. When the last clown standing takes off his clown mask and reveals the clown make-up he is sporting, we know that we are in the company of a deranged criminal who does not follow any rules or patterns. This will undermine both the criminals and the cops for the rest of the story. This is the performance from the late Heath Ledger that won him a posthumous Academy Award, and it was richly earned. Ledger gives the Joker mannerisms that suggest he is bat shit crazy in every scene, but he also has a voice that commands respect because of the level of intelligence behind it. In the scene at the fund raiser, when he takes notice of Rachel Dawes, he pushes his sweaty hair back behind his ear, with a knife in his hand, like he is primping for a meet cute, while armed and dangerous. When he gets caught and is baiting the officer who is standing watch over him, he manages to smirk in an antagonistic way, in spite of the fact that he is still covered in his trademark make-up. Ledger underplays so many scenes despite being the most flamboyant character in the story.
One of the things that makes this film work well is that Bruce Wayne gets to be part of the plot in addition to being Batman. His love triangle with Rachel, his planning of the extraction of the accountant from Hong Kong, and the series of moments when he seems set to reveal himself, are all more engaged in the story than the billionaire usually gets. When he manages to safe the life of the man who is going to reveal his identity, it is in his best detached and clueless rich guy persona, a part he plays regularly in the film. Christian Bale has to do most of his acting in these scenes since the costume does so much in the Batman moments. One of the jokes that people sometimes make about Nolan's Batman concerns the gravelly voice that the Batman uses to cover who he is. I think too many people believe it is just an attempt to intimidate criminals (which it is) but they ignore that he is also avoiding being identified.
Director Christopher Nolan has put together a great series of action sequences which are mostly justified by the plot, even if logically they can't all come out the way they are supposed to. I have already mentioned the opening heist, but Batman has a heist of his own when extraditing Lau from Hong Kong. The spectacular removal from the building is a moment from a 60s era James Bond film, but played as serious rather than comic. The stunned security men are befuddled at the smashed window and the pane flying into the upcoming day looks just brilliant. Both the Joker and Batman have an action scene that plays out their own plans simultaneously, as Harvey Dent, claiming to be Batman, is transferred across town, there are gun battles, crashes, the end of the Batmobile and the birth of the Batpod, and it climaxes with a tractor trailer cartwheeling front to back on the streets of Gotham.
Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart, is the White Knight of the city that Batman wants to step aside for, but of course the Joker has a different goal. Certainly Harvey has reason to feel embittered and resentful. The fact that he can be tipped over to the Dark Side has been hinted at a couple of times in the course of the film. I just think that the final Two Face challenge is such a reach that it is the only flaw in the carefully constructed plot. It works, but only barely, and I think you have to see the film several times to be convinced that it is not just a plot contrivance.
The film is filled with actors who do a fine job in their parts. Most of the criminals get short shrift but the cops, many of whom are tainted, get a chance to show off a bit. Eric Roberts is slimy as hell, Morgan Freeman is as cool as you would hope, but the heroic center of the film is Jim Gordon, played by Gary Oldman. Gordon is a cop who tries to play it by the book but knows that the Batman is the linchpin on pushing Gotham back from the brink. His part in the capture of the Joker is a fun twist and his distraught father in the last scenes are demonstrations of Oldman's talents.
The electronic and orchestral score makes a dramatic impact on the film, although the lack of melodies probably keep it from being memorable. Humming along to the strum and dang of the score is not really possible, but the score is effective time after time in evoking emotions and mood. The action scenes have the parts that are most like traditional tunes, and Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard have divvied up the two antagonists to create wholly different personas for them musically. It is a very distinct score from the Tim Burton Batman films and several elements from the first film are repeated here, in completely appropriate ways.
Even though the Joker succeeded at spoiling Harvey Dent as a hero, Batman and Jim Gordon snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by changing the narrative and turning Batman into the dark figure of the story. The combination of Batman's faith in the citizens of Gotham on the ferry, and the sacrifice he makes to become a fugitive, give the story the bump it needs at the end to reach an emotional crescendo. The final narration from Gary Oldman makes the conclusion pay off with goosebumps.