Joke’s On Us: Nolan’s Noir Is Gloomy Echo of New York in 2008

I must confess that I did not see The Dark Knight on an IMAX screen as I was promised by the distributor. It seems that Kung Fu Panda had a prior claim to the IMAX screen. No matter; I have survived such “revolutionary” advances as 3-D, Cinerama, CinemaScope, VistaVision, and who can remember what else? All I can say is that in my humbly Luddite opinion, The Dark Knight doesn’t have to go eight stories high to impress me with its technical virtuosity, for which I must thank, in addition to the Nolan brothers, the director of photography, Wally Pfister; the production designer, Nathan Crowley; the editor, Lee Smith; composers Hans Zimmer and Newton Howard; and the costume designer, Lindy Hemming.

HAVING NOW PRAISED The Dark Knight to the skies, and recommended it to everyone this side of Gotham City, I must ask the reader to read no further in my review of this masterpiece because I am about to reveal its darkest secret. (In other words, spoiler alert.) And what is that? Now, don’t peek. It is simply the wanton slaughter of the two most dynamic and most idealistic innocents, Mr. Eckhart’s Harvey Dent and Ms. Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes. Their deaths are testaments to the omnipotently anarchic evil of Ledger’s Joker. And for once, Bruce Wayne/Batman, for all his wiles and wizardry, is unable to save either Dent or Rachel, when earlier Batmen could have rescued them with a climatic swoop of their Batmobile, and have thrown in a wedding for the two virtuous lovers besides.

But Mr. Nolan seems to have fallen into a darker mood between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, less than three years later. Has the world changed that much for the worse in the interim? One is hard-pressed to answer that question in the negative, though it may seem strange for many that so much weight is being given to a movie about a comic-book superhero. Actually, the moral despair in The Dark Knight has moved me so strongly because Mr. Nolan and his collaborators have not gone out of their way to zap the zeitgeist in primitively Bush-bashing fashion as have so many contemporary fiction and nonfiction filmmakers with a chip on their left shoulders. The political issues in The Dark Knight remain local and municipal, not really global despite the aforementioned excursion to Hong Kong.

Yet at a time when all social systems are veering toward moral bankruptcy, I was struck by the way Gotham City is presented for the first time in Batman movie history as a city with global connections, and not merely as a self-contained abstraction of a city with its own hermetically sealed morality and innocence.

Of the two precedent-shattering victims of the Joker’s anarchic ability to corrupt the most law-abiding citizens into betraying their friends and associates, Rachel is disposed of fairly quickly and without much suffering. Dent’s destruction, by contrast, is excruciatingly prolonged by its being divided into two stages, the first when half of his face is burned up at the very moment when Batman is desperately trying to save his life. Dent then briefly becomes a Batman-genre grotesque nicknamed Two-Face, who goes on a murderous spree directed against the once-trusted individuals who had betrayed him and Rachel. The Joker has thus succeeded in turning the once-crusading-for-justice Dent into everything he had previously hated.

In the end, Bruce Wayne/Batman, Alfred and Lucius Fox try to pick up the pieces of a shattered community, but their hearts don’t seem to be in it. Too many good people have died in a seemingly futile effort to reform their society. Doesn’t that seem too close to the daily world news, even though The Dark Knight is not intentionally trying to establish any real-life parallels with its own gory fictions?

I previously have had my own auteurist doubts about Mr. Nolan’s work, even though he has been much honored for his stylistic innovations in Memento (2001) and The Prestige (2006). But after The Dark Knight, I may have to rethink my past reservations about Mr. Nolan’s place in the 21st-century cinema.

asarris@observer.com

Joke’s On Us: Nolan’s Noir Is Gloomy Echo of New York in 2008