Bat Out of Hell

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Even if the death of Heath Ledger hadn’t already draped it in a funeral shroud, The Dark Knight would be a morbid affair: It could only be darker if Batman died. (He does die a little, on the inside.) The director, Christopher Nolan, has decided to get real with the thing. Forget Gotham City—or Anton Furst’s splendid Gothic Gotham of Tim Burton’s Batman, which summoned up the freaky superhero’s inner landscape of vaulted arches and gargoyles. We’re now in a modern, untransformed Manhattan, where the Joker’s opening bank heist unfolds in a tense, realistic style with multiple point-blank shootings. It’s a shock—and very effective—to see a comic-book villain come on like a Quentin Tarantino reservoir dog. But then the novelty wears off and the lack of imagination, visual and otherwise, turns into a drag. The Dark Knight is noisy, jumbled, and sadistic. Even its most wondrous vision—Batman’s plunges from skyscrapers, bat-wings snapping open as he glides through the night like a human kite—can’t keep the movie airborne. There’s an anvil attached to that cape.

Nolan and his brother Jonathan (they co-wrote the script) have a fine, ironic starting point: Batman (Christian Bale) has inspired copycat vigilantes, and they’re making an even bigger mess of crime-plagued Gotham City. It’s as if an action—the introduction of a vigilante do-gooder—has triggered an equal and opposite reaction. And Batman has a true counterforce: a Joker (Ledger) who’s a terrorist, a one-man insurgency, with no motivation except bringing chaos. He fancies himself a Lord of Misrule; he taunts the gangsters whose goons he exploits; and he assassinates—or works to corrupt—do-gooders like cleft-chinned district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Batman—talons tied by pesky ethics—can’t stanch the madness.

On paper, the morality play is intriguing, but a lot of the dialogue should have stayed on paper (I can imagine a study guide: “The Joker tells Batman he can’t fight chaos because he has too many ‘rules.’ Do those rules ultimately help or hinder Batman in his quest for justice?”). Nolan is grappling with the Big Themes of vigilantism (especially urban vigilantism), and he did pretty well in Batman Begins: The movie was a foundation on which to build a new series; even in the mouth of the ridiculously chirpy Katie Holmes (as Rachel Dawes, stalwart assistant D.A.), the thesis line, “Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about making yourself feel better,” made an excellent superhero mantra. But the psychological twists in The Dark Knight—especially the transformation of Dent into “Two-Face”—are baffling as drama. They play as if they’d been penned by Oxford philosophy majors trying to tone up a piece of American pop—to turn it into an uncivil Shavian dialogue, Don Juan in Hell with mutilations and truck crashes.

Oh, the verbiage probably wouldn’t matter if those truck crashes were any fun, but the tumult is spectacularly incoherent. Nolan appears to have no clue how to stage or shoot action. He got away with the chopped-up fights in Batman Begins because his hero was a barely glimpsed ninja, coming at villains from all angles in stroboscopic flashes. There are more variables here, which means more opportunities to say “What the f— just happened?” I defy you to make spatial sense of the early scene in which Batman battles faux Batmen, gangsters, and the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy in a cameo that comes to nothing). If you can, move on to Level 2, diagramming the “Bat-tank versus Joker-truck versus cop car” chase. Then, finally, take the Ultimate Challenge: following the climax with Batman, the Joker, more faux Batmen, decoy hostages dressed as clowns, a SWAT team, and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius with some kind of sonar monitoring gizmo that tracks all the parties on video screens. Actually, Freeman looks like he knows what’s going on. Maybe the sequence plays well in sonar.

I saw it in Imax, and let me tell you, on that colossal screen, those skyscraper bat-plunges (in Gotham and Hong Kong) are something to see—and feel. If they rigged up that Disney World thing where your seats tilt in sync with the camera, they’d have to keep out pregnant women and people with fear of heights. The momentum doesn’t carry through, though. The Dark Knight is all fits and starts—fitfully suspenseful, fitfully scary, one jerky episode after another with jolts of brutality to keep you revved up. When Burton’s Batman came out, some prominent critics griped that the film was too violent for kids. Wait’ll they get a load of this.

The Dark Knight needs every drop of Christian Bale’s charm. His Batman rasps his lines in a voice that’s deeper and hammier than ever, and when Bruce Wayne has to pretend to be a mindlessly hedonistic playboy, his smirk carries a trace of Dubya entitlement. (Bruce pushes to use Lucius’s sonar device for FISA-like surveillance, and Lucius—despite his stern civil-libertarian qualms—does it just this once.) Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over (hooray!) for Katie Holmes and graciously doesn’t trash her predecessor’s characterization. She makes sense of it: Rachel is a bratty little show-off who also happens to be kind of smart. The other great pleasure is watching Pretentious English Thespian Gary Oldman play the soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon as the most ordinary of ordinary American Joes. Rarely has flatness been so witty.

Which brings me to the performance that’s the opposite of flat, the one you really want to know about.

How is Heath Ledger? My heart went out to him. He’s working so very hard to fill the void, to be doing something every second. It’s rave and rage and purge acting. This Joker is a straight-out psychopath—a Stephen King clown-demon with smudged greasepaint and yellow teeth and hair that appears to have never been washed. As written, the Joker is like a souped-up Andy Robinson in Dirty Harry (only this Harry won’t blow him away with a .44 Magnum), and Ledger revs it higher and higher. He bugs his eyes and licks compulsively at the gashes that extend his mouth. He tries on different voices. First he sounds like Cagney in White Heat, then slides into a prissy singsong like Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley, then throws in some fruity Brando flourishes and a dash of Hannibal Lecter. He’s lethal—fast with sharp objects—but apart from a gruesome bit with a pencil not terribly prankish. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, but in truth, I found the performance painful to watch. Scarier than what the Joker does to anyone onscreen is what Ledger must have been doing to himself—trying to find the center of a character without a dream of one.

Who’d-a thunk when Meryl Streep won her Oscar for Sophie’s Choice that 25 years later, she’d be capering fatuously to Abba songs while, next door at the multiplex, Batman would be reenacting Götterdämmerung? High culture, low culture, the center isn’t holding. Anyway, a golden-aureoled Streep does more fake laughing in the first half-hour of Mamma Mia! than in her entire career; she must have taken hits of nitrous oxide between takes. She plays the mother of a 20-year-old (Amanda Seyfried) who’s about to get married (they live on a sun-drenched Greek island) and wants to know which of the three men who made the beast with two backs with Mom is her dad—so she invites the trio (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard) to the wedding. None of the synthetic Abba hits have to do with this setup: They’re generic, shoehorned in, and when the characters begin to sing they don’t reveal more of themselves—they become more simpleminded. It wouldn’t matter if there were good dancing, but it’s all skipping-along-cliff-paths-waving-arms stuff, a few frames at a time. Seyfried (of Big Love and Mean Girls) is a radiant object and can sing, but I’d like to forget the others—especially Brosnan, whose singing is the best imitation I’ve heard of a water buffalo. Streep has a sweet voice and knows how to use it (although she can’t save a song as terrible as “The Winner Takes It All”), but it’s sad to watch a perfectionist remove part of her brain and try to convince us she’s having a jolly time.

Largely forgotten since its release in 1961, Kent Mackenzie’s transfixing 72-minute drama The Exiles arrives like a message in a bottle—restored (by Ross Lipman at UCLA), in lucid black-and-white, a warning we ought to have heeded but didn’t want to hear (or, in the case of younger moviegoers, never had the chance to hear). The director regarded it as a documentary, and this is a rare case in which something shaped and partly scripted might qualify. The film centers on young Indians who’ve moved from the reservation to downtown Los Angeles, where the men drink and pick up women and drink and play cards and drink and sing tribal songs and drink and dance and drink and fight and drink. Nothing in the narrative is especially surprising, in part because so many filmmakers have absorbed The Exiles, either literally or by osmosis. But there isn’t a banal shot: not the faces of each man hunkering over a beer bottle or giving himself to a tribal song on a dark hill overlooking the metropolis, not the traffic tunnel with its unearthly glow under the neighborhood where these nomads can never seem to put down roots. The Exiles opens with photographs of tribal warriors before their tribes were decimated and ghettoized, but what follows can’t be reduced to a victimization plaint. The protagonists, Homer (Homer Nish) and his wife, the pregnant Yvonne (Yvonne Williams), speak in voice-over about their dreams for a better life, but she is deposited at a downtown movie theater and he embarks on an all-night odyssey in search of a wholeness that will never come. You can only brood on the near half-century since The Exiles was shot—and be grateful that someone went to that place and captured it all.

Much of the attention paid to The Dark Knight centers on Heath Ledger—but even before the tragedy of Ledger’s death, his greasy Joker was an object of great fascination. Ledger said he found inspiration in Sid Vicious and the clown-faced thugs of A Clockwork Orange; costume designer Lindy Hemming pointed to pop-culture icons of distress Pete Doherty, Iggy Pop, and Johnny Rotten. Director Christopher Nolan shared a highbrow referent with MSNBC: “The corrupted clown face is built into the icon of the Joker, but we gave a Francis Bacon spin to it … It’s grubby. You can almost imagine what he smells like.”

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The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Warner Bros. PG-13.

Mamma Mia!
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
Universal. PG-13.

The Exiles
Directed by Kent Mackenzie.
IFC Films. NR.


Bat Out of Hell