Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Dark Knight

What's scary nowadays? Apart from the prospect of having to ring up your ISP to complain about your internet connection being fucked all week long - hmmm, sometimes you can find a little too much out about yourself from your writing - no, really, apart from the prospect of global warming, losing your house, your children growing up to be like Sam Sparro, what is scary? Not monsters, not freaks, no way.

Normally a film is made scary by the tension, but the Dark Knight has very little tension; you know that Batman is going to off the Joker by the end, apart from anything else, and the scenes aren't played for suspense in that manner anyway, yet even so the Joker may well be one of the disturbing incarnations to be brought to the big screen for many a year.

Why so? Heath Ledger's perfectly balanced performance sits between at the under-mined meeting point of comedy and horror; he takes Jack Nicholson's version (YT) and makes it more level, more believable and down-to-earth, even as he incarnates a comic strip in front of your eyes. That is its horror, that he takes something evidently unreal and moulds it into plausibility. That is what grips you as the various bat-toys zwing across two and a half hours of screen time, the prospect that maybe, just maybe, the Joker has a point.

The film-makers do this in a somewhat underhand manner; they take a completely psychopathic lunatic and then feed him lots of reasonable sounding lines. If you miss their sleight of hand, you are in danger of deciding that, if you were to "have some of what he's having", or at least have subscribed at some time to some of the outre, but not unfathomable, theories that the Joker is trying to squeeze out, in between his supernatural feats of ingenious destruction, if you were to do that, you would necessarily and automatically become a psychopathic terrorist with no compassion or empathy for the rest of humanity.

Heath Ledger's Joker is a man on a very bad trip, but he's enjoying it. That prospect does surely worry someone like myself, who likes to think that acid will not turn people into psychopathic killers. Of course Charles Manson long ago buried the idea of the necessarily benevolent psychedelic somewhere in Death Valley, but even so I'm pretty sure that the screenwriters gratuitiously dosed the Joker up on a little RAW discordianism to unsettle the likes of me. Maybe I'm hallucinated it. Whatever, it worked. Heath Ledger's Joker is a work of majesty. When he appears dressed as a nurse, or when you catch a glimpse of him in the crowd without his make-up, he is as perfectly formed as when he drifts carelessly into a room full of Gotham mob bosses, who he just happens to have robbed.

As for Batman, well, whatever, he was always just window dressing for his villains, and though films have got more high-tech and supposedly darker, he is no match for any of them for interest. You feel like he is destined to forever be missing something, like he has stubbonly remained the campest straight at Gay Pride.

Apart from Ledger, the film falls down if not everywhere then at least plentywhere. Despite a fantastic set-piece where Batman kidnaps - extraordinarily renditions perhaps - a Chinese national from Hong Kong, (after all, China won't extradite one of their own, they tell us) and we see the US's current Chinese puzzle, despite that and the film's evocation of a city apparently under a "terrorist" assault - this a terrorist who has, let's be frank about it, purer motives than most - and despite the aerial view of a devastated building which cannot help but remind one and all of the twin towers, despite all of this, the film is never able to anchor itself and construct relevance for itself. It remains comic book stupid, brilliant, but dumb, by which i mean it has nothing to say.

But its fatal flaw, beyond constantly having people mumble potentious sounding lines beneath a soaring soundtrack (nobody i was with could tell me what the last line of the film was), was that it went on too bloody long, for no good reason, and its tightness unravelled like a ball of string rolling across the floor. The Joker, having escaped in typically brilliant fashion from police cells, then decides to run a moral test on Gotham's population, a sort of mass murder version of the Stanford Experiment [OK, probably not the Stanford Experiment, but if you know which Experiment I should be referring to, then by all means drop me a comment]. He does something similar in Alan Moore's the Killing Joke so I am loathe to say that it is out of character, but for someone so pleased with his own outlook, it seems a shame that he suddenly feels the need to prove something by constructing a ridiculous test that doesnt even prove what he claims he is trying to prove. Far better for the film to have ended with Two-Face recently injured - here I have to admit that i cant recall exactly what order things happened in, so bear with me - the Joker on the run, perhaps with his last speech about how much "fun" Batman is still intact and us half an hour better off, with no guff about the spirit of the unJokered humanity to ruin what is otherwise a cracking film.

Addendum: Interesting post by someone far more knowledgable than me, also interesting to note how much better presented the Joker is in most of the comics, compared with Ledger's somewhat grubby incarnation