by Jared Peterson
It’s worth saying up front: The Dark Knight probably should have been rated R. The violence, menace, and upsetting images, imaginative as they all are, are still so pervasive that the total effect could be truly disturbing even for older teens. Your parental guidance might properly lead your kids down the hall to another film or back home to a good book. Adults should consider toughing it out, though, because the film is a triumph—taut, suspenseful, sophisticated, thrilling and (as I exhaust the film reviewers’ thesaurus) action-packed.
By night, brooding billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, poker-faced) dons cape and cowl to fight crime in the shadows of a sprawling megalopolis called Gotham. Opinion regarding the caped crusader is mixed; some see a defender of justice, others a dangerous vigilante. The police, who officially want to catch him, secretly appreciate his help.
As crime begins to fall and hope begins to rise, Wayne is on the lookout for his replacement: a crusader who can stand in the light, without a mask. He believes he’s found one in the principled new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, more than meets the eye), who also happens to be dating Bruce’s girl-that-got-away, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, the cat’s meow). Rachel knows about Bruce’s night job, and she once promised they’d be together if he gave up the Bat. He hopes that when Dent becomes the hero he can step down and Rachel can keep her word. As usual, it’s more complicated than that.
Meanwhile, crime has a new face, and it isn’t pretty. With streaky hair and smeared clown makeup, the Joker (Heath Ledger, a marvel) is a wide-awake nightmare. He sews destruction and reaps fear. He’s the ultimate terrorist, in that the terror is all he cares about. And he sees Batman as his perfect nemesis—a fellow costumed “freak”—and he aims to pull the city down around them both, all in good fun.
The Joker was Ledger’s last completed film role; he died suddenly earlier this year at the age of 28. There has been talk of a posthumous Oscar nomination, which would be a touching tribute to a talented young man taken too soon. But tribute or no, this may actually be the best performance of the year. Ledger is amazing. His Joker is at once casually menacing yet distressingly smart. You’ll never be comfortable when he’s on screen, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.
As hero and villain collide, the superheroics are plentiful and satisfying. With so many summer blockbusters dominated by computer-generated absurdity, it’s genuinely thrilling to see wonders unfold “in camera.” And so the most spectacular moment in the entire film occurs when something real and three-dimensional and huge—something that should definitely not flip completely over—flips completely over. Any audience might understandably leap to its feet and cheer at such a phenomenal sight. At my screening, I think people were simply too stunned to move.
As previously noted, the violence is pervasive and extreme. Batman’s whuppings are brutal but non-lethal—he has rules. It’s the Joker who delights in finding new and vicious ways to end lives. One character is severely disfigured and we see the results in some detail, but even wounds that occur “off-frame” are blood-curdling. There is limited profanity—a single H, GD, and SOB. No sexual shenanigans here, only one or two kisses that seal some fates.
Though far darker than any previous incarnation of the Batman story, The Dark Knight is nevertheless an impressive piece of art. You’ll walk away drained—and dazzled.
At a July 19th screening the previews, each approved for the PG-13 audience, included the following: Body of Lies (R); Terminator Salvation (R); Watchmen (R); The Mummy III (PG-13); The Day the Earth Stood Still (not yet rated); Quantum of Solace (not yet rated); Tropic Thunder (R).