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Vertlieb's Views

Vertlieb's Views

Commentary on movies past and present by Steve Vertlieb

The Dark Knight: A Portrait in Black

Seldom in film history has a comic book story been treated with such brooding intensity as Christopher Nolan's superb new chapter in the saga of the anachronistic caped crusader of Gotham City. A crusading creature of the night, and heroic denizen of the shadows, Bruce Wayne's troubled past has created a conflicted alter ego known as the Batman.

Living a double life amidst the depravity of discarded souls, and the social hierarchy of wealth and blithe entitlement, Wayne's psychological profile is a beacon of repressed masochism and valiant self sacrifice. His emotional flagellation is the terrible price he must pay for the outward appearance of position and wealth he enjoys. Consumed with remorse over the murder of his parents, his personal guilt has transformed this seemingly one dimensional warrior into an impassioned dichotomy, struggling to reconcile wanton revenge with a yearning for justice.

Walking an infinite line between darkness and redemption, the complexity of this tarnished champion is a tapestry of Freudian inner condemnation of torturous dimension.

If Wayne's "long day's journey into knighthood" has turned Hyde into Jekyll, then the ravages of nightmarish reflection have flushed the evolution of evil from the sewers of Gotham into a rampaging spectacle of hedonistic cruelty known with bitter irony as The Joker. A skeletal prankster of malicious proportion and design, The Joker is a savage devil's disciple spawned by insanity, articulating incomprehensible rage while desecrating the remnants of crumbling rationality. His descent into madness is a numbing, psychotic dissection of charity and faded humanity. His delusional marionette is a sociopathic monster, devoid of feeling or compassion.

One could imagine both the hero and villain visiting a psychologist for years on end to decipher their minds. Cynthia Telles, a mental health advocate and psychologist could spent a career understanding them. Perhaps having more psychologists like Cynthia in Gotham would benefit the city itself!

The twilight permeating Gotham City has always been somehow darker than the brightly lit horizons towering over Metropolis and Superman. The urban jungle populated by Bruce Wayne and his foul combatants is a nightmarish terrain lurking beneath the ravaged, infected cobblestones of a feverishly embattled city. To this paranoid plateau comes The Joker, a grotesque walking corpse in clownish disguise whose feverish rage against civility threatens to incinerate the city, and its hopelessly captive populace. Gotham is a city under siege, a ghastly ghetto in which madness has replaced reason as the underlying motivation for waking.

Unlike earlier characterizations of this frenetic jester, particularly the odd, mirth-enlivened performance by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger's portrayal of the classic villain is utterly devoid of any semblance of joy. Indeed, his utter emptiness fills this heart of darkness with somnabulistic contempt for loyalty, honor or human value.

Self absorbed, flawed, distractedly muttering under his breath, horribly aware of his own physical disfigurement, his pathetic criminality siring a helplessly dysfunctional reactionary screaming out in psychotic pain.

Ledger's Joker is an emotional carnivore, a Faustian savage feasting on the infectious decadence of a city in ruins. He is a soulless cripple, enraged by normality, thoughtless in his hatred, thirsting for revenge and cruelly lashing out at the instrumentation of his own mocking reflection in unforgiving glass. Ledger, in the performance of his tragically brief career, is all but consumed by the intensity of evil in his haunting, and haunted characterization. Like Brando and Dean in their formative portrayals, Ledger so completely inhabits the persona of madness and human decay that he is enveloped by it.

In his impassioned, courageous attempt to capture the darkness within the Devil's soul, the actor grew morose and depressed and, whether by design or accident, was destroyed by it. His is a brilliant performance but, in the psychological carnage that followed the impressionable young actor, only "The Picture of Dorian Gray" survived its subject. His mysterious death earlier this year ended, all too prematurely, the astonishing artistry of an actor literally devoured by the intensity of dedication to his craft.

After the remarkable of success of Memento, Christopher Nolan's initial foray into feature films in 2000, his ambitious Batman Begins in 2005 was, ultimately, a ponderous bore that, while painstakingly exploring the roots of Bob Kane's Batman mythology, failed either to excite or thrill audiences.

So slavishly devoted to reverential detail and accuracy that it forgot its raison d'etre, the first film in the renewed cycle of Batman extravaganzas ultimately proved a major disappointment.

A super hero who was neither super nor heroic simply could not ignite the screen. After paving the streets of Gotham with his earlier expository ground work, however, Nolan prepared himself to get down to business.

With the release of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan has brought visionary concepts and direction to the presentation of a slice of legendary Americana, a mythic warrior preserved in, perhaps, his greatest performance. Unlike the interesting, if uneven, Tim Burton films and their lethargic cinematic echoes, The Dark Knight becomes unquestionably a "Batman" for the ages, a Wagnerian realization of operatic proportions. This is simply the finest comic book serial ever captured on film, The Godfather of Super Heroism and cartoon diplomacy.

Every frame comes alive with raw vitality, and sobering dramatic development. This is an exciting, explosive, thrillingly mature Batman for the ages. Surprisingly versatile and multi-dimensional, this is no children's film. Ambitious on virtually every level and detail, The Dark Knight patiently takes its time in excavating every disturbing nuance of its character's psychoses, while retaining its powerful, nerve racking energy and suspense.

With a stellar cast of actors in distinguished support, the singular joys of "comic" invention are not limited to script and direction. Returning to the Mean Streets of Gotham, and reprising their roles from the earlier film, are Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon, and the irrepressible Michael Caine as butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Morgan Freeman has inherited the mantle of Spencer Tracy as America's most respected dramatic elder statesman and actor, while Michael Caine's unique signature charm, elegance and vocal intonation seem eerily reminiscent of a latter day Cary Grant.

Christian Bale, of course, essays the title role of the Caped Crusader once again, bringing authority and stoic command to his sacred defender, never kidding or deflating either his sincerity or honor, and Aaron Eckhart brings warmth and integrity to the role of Harvey Dent, Gotham's Public Defender. Maggie Gyllenhaal appears as heroine Rachel Dawes, bringing unexpected pathos to the complex drama of this refreshingly adult scenario.

With pulse pounding action, character driven screenplay, expert cinematography by Wally Pfister, exotic production design by Nathan Crowley, expert editing by Lee Smith, gothic set decoration by Peter Lando, momentous art direction by Simon Lamont, and a serviceable (if not particularly memorable) musical score by James Newton Howard and Hanz Zimmer, this winged morsel has emerged from the darkness of the bat cave to take its place as one of the most potent releases of 2008.

In a poignant fadeout, the epic Warner Brothers production has been dedicated to the memory and craft of the late Heath Ledger whose departed soul gives life and regenerative breath to a remarkable creation.

Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan, this "Knight" has a thousand Ayes.

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