SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT
Two images to begin, the first poetic, the second emblematic.
First: A nighttime shot of the Gotham City terrorist known as The Joker (Heath Ledger), his head stuck out the side window of a swerving and careening police car. The wind whips through his hair, stringy green locks blowing wild. His eyes are closed expectantly, lasciviously. Per his trademark behavior, it would hardly be a surprise if he were to flick his tongue around, wetting his lips and lapping up the chaos he's created, even in the molecular abstract. The sound dies away as the shot (all too brief) goes on—this is the power of cinema: to put us in a headspace other than our own; to focus our attentions to a finely honed point; to experience, for lack of a better descriptor, the sheer bliss of being alive, even though the world burns.
Second: The Joker again, just entered a roomful of Gotham City mobsters. He sticks a pencil into a table and says he's going to perform a magic trick. His devil-may-care bravado angers the men around him, and one of them (who might as well be wearing a "Disposable Henchman" placard) steps up to take down this lisping, pancake-and-mascara dribbling fop. Barely missing a beat, The Joker grabs the gangster's head and rams him, face down, on the pencil. In the blink of an eye, both man and writing implement bounce out of frame, never to be seen again (almost as if they were never there). It's the ultimate punchline because there's really no joke, just a madman trickster's truth: now you see it, now you don't.
Now you see it, now you don't. That about encapsulates the depths of feeling and artistry in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan and company's sordid exercise in avert-your-eyes sadism, a work at best inelegant and at worst inept. The film would have us believe it's about dualities and polarities, the so-called Dark Knight of Gotham (Christian Bale as billionaire Bruce Wayne and vigilante alter-ego Batman) compared and contrasted with White Knight—soon-to-be literally two-faced—Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), both of them joined in messily chaotic battle with the facially-scarred villain known as The Joker, whose mid-film "You complete me" declaration to Batman is less Jerry Maguire-jest than Matrix-like pseudo-philosophy.
Yes, we're back in the realm of "awesome!" anagrams and pothead palindromes that the Wachowski Brothers popularized nearly a decade ago, only now they're spoken with a solemnity and verbosity borne of a beat-down Western warrior spirit, and lent gravitas by a cast only stellar in theory. But then it hardly matters if The Dark Knight's dispiriting view of a city at war with itself doesn't hold together, not when you have Morgan Freeman (as Wayne Enterprises liaison Lucius Fox) and Michael Caine (as stalwart manservant Alfred) spouting gloomy old man platitudes about the culture of surveillance, and everyone else monologuing ad nauseum about various and sundry long, dark teatimes of the soul.
Nolan and company's previous Bat-tale, Batman Begins, is similarly infected with such verbal diarrhea (the word "fear" hasn't been spoken so much since David Lynch's adaptation of Dune), but it has a purposeful sense of momentum that occasionally treads the sublime, such as when Batman races his poisoned l'amour Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) back to his underground lair, the sequence climaxing with the Batmobile arcing violently, gorgeously through a waterfall—a sanctifying romantic impulse melded seamlessly to a shopworn race-against-the-clock scenario.
Dawes returns in The Dark Knight (this time the paramour of Dent and in the form of Maggie Gyllenhaal), but now she's little more than bait, a damsel-on-the-railroad-tracks plot device. I'm certain Nolan thought he was being transgressive by killing Rachel off, but her death packs zero punch because it's so blatantly a screenwriter's contrivance—mainly to motivate Dent's split-personality revenge—and one executed with the same amount of "Gotcha!" shallowness as an earlier fake-out murder featuring not-yet-Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman).
Nolan fancies himself a magician, but he's more of a high-minded con artist—the Barry Lyndon of the Hollywood elite. If he occasionally stumbles upon an indelible image (aside from the one noted above, a scene where the two-wheeled Batpod does a wall-assisted 180-degree turnaround gave me giddy shivers) it's quickly subsumed by his more frequent tendency toward Cusinarted spectacle. The human drama in Batman Begins held my attentions, so I wasn't so much bothered by the fact that its action scenes were murky, bordering on incoherent (this seemed intentional to some degree, even though I think it was, ultimately, a failed artistic choice).
In The Dark Knight, Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister extend the incoherence to the movie entire. Despite being filmed on location in Chicago (along with a brief sojourn to Hong Kong), there's little feel for the city's dynamics, just random car-commercial shots of speeding vehicles, with inserts occasionally cluing us in as to who's supposed to be where. More problematic is the tendency for characters to randomly show up as narrative twists-'n'-turns dictate, such as when mob boss Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts) just happens to be waiting outside Harvey Dent's hospital room so he can act as Jim Gordon's on-the-spot snitch (the way Roberts plays the scene, he's like a stone-faced, humanoid information kiosk waiting to be prompted with directional queries).
Since all these characters can be everywhere at once (except when disfigurement or death is called for), it severely undercuts the tension, and thus calls more attention to The Dark Knight's rickety allegorical skeleton. On his personal website, critic Dave Kehr gives an astute reading of the film's politics, calling it "Dirty Harry stripped of Don Siegel's ambivalence and ambiguity." He goes on to posit Nolan and the film as something of a George Bush apologia, but I think this is granting The Dark Knight more of a concrete ideological interpretation than it deserves. The very fact that Kehr ends his critique with a question ("Is he suggesting...?") implies that Nolan's themes—his beliefs—are too muddled to be read with any sort of certainty.
This flip-flop sensibility grows inexorably out of the film's shallow artistry. For a movie purported to be so, well, "dark," The Dark Knight spends a more-than-noticeable amount of time turning its gaze from the horrors it perpetrates. There's an early scene where The Joker holds a mob boss at knifepoint, telling a made-up backstory as to how he got his facial scars. The buildup is suitably intense, but Nolan whiffs the follow-through by having The Joker's mouth-slitting finale occur offscreen. It's the pencil gag all over again, only rendered ineffectual, monotonous, the "now you see it, now you don't" philosophy injected ruinously into the film's aesthetic fabric.
And it really only gets worse from there. Much like Bale, who disappears inside the Batman cape and cowl as surely as he wasted away in The Machinist (that's not a compliment), the film is slowly—slowly—devoured by its high-falutin' funereal pretensions. There should be a kick to seeing The Joker wreak havoc (the laughter should stick in our throat, yes, but it should always be there regardless); to seeing Two-Face consumed by vengeance (rather than turned, thuddingly, into both a walking "oh the humanity!" metaphor and a low-rent Anton Chigurh facsimile); to seeing Batman, ultimately, make a life-altering sacrifice for the present-tense good of Gotham (half self-absorption/half martyrdom). But it's all (bad) theater, as much a put-on as the posthumous Oscar buzz and Dean-comparing deifications of Ledger who, like everyone else, is playing a concept more than a character, hyped-up grist for a bloated pop-cultural mill.
It's sad to witness The Joker become an abstruse agent of chaos, as much of an emptied-out, metaphor-laden golem as Two-Face. For Nolan, he can't just be a sadistic, psychotic clown: he has to be something of a spoiled bastard child bred by humanity's indifference, a literal sickness made flesh (something that lends a particularly queasy uncertainty to the sequence where The Joker does his best Bobbi from Dressed to Kill). He gets a great entrance and a lame exit—befitting our age of summation and closure, every primary Dark Knight character has at least one enervating "Clarissa Explains it All" monologue. His overall plan is foiled, but his cackling cynic's view lingers on, driving those Gotham residents left standing into secrecy and/or seclusion. In a better movie, that note of desperation would resonate far beyond the borders of the screen, but here it remains at a cold, notional distance, just another of Nolan's trickster philosophies, a final pencil in the eye before we're bounced out of the darkness—a little worse for wear and none the wiser for the experience.
Keith Uhlich is Editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.