Christopher Nolanís Achievement: The Dark KnightTHOMAS S. HIBBS
With the record-setting release of The Dark Knight, his sequel to Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan, whose previous films include Memento, Insomnia, and The Prestige, stakes his claim to be our most inventive and most philosophical filmmaker.
He has certainly surpassed M. Night Shyamalan, whose latest release The Happening was his third straight disappointing film. Both Nolan and Shyamalan focus on dark tales of human quest in which characters, set out to solve a crime or set things right in the face of seemingly insuperable evil, are beset with doubts, and tempted by despair, or -- what is worse -- by the temptation to become the evil they are fighting against. Whereas Shyamalan has descended into unintentional self-parody in his last few films, Nolan's filmmaking and storytelling skills are on the rise.
Nolan first gained his notoriety with Memento, his remarkable indie neo-noir film starring Guy Pearce as a man trying to solve his wife's murder while suffering from short-term memory lapses. Shot in short segments, to mirror the amount of time Pearce's memory could remain intact, and in reverse chronological order, the film raised all sorts of interesting questions about personal identity, knowledge of the past and the significance of human choices. The examination of moral issues was even more at the forefront of Nolan's next film, Insomnia, starring Al Pacino as a compromised cop, whose insomnia reflects his uneasiness with the state of his own soul. Pursuing a wily suspect (Robin Williams), Pacino's character is forced to reckon with questions about what differentiates him from the criminal. Consciously making use of classic noir thematic and stylistic elements, Nolan specializes in the dramatic portrayal of quests for which there is no possibility of a traditional happy ending or a complete recovery of what has been lost. The best that can be hoped is, as Pacino's character puts it, that we "not lose our way."
A similar premise undergirds Nolan's retelling of the Batman myth, starring Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne. Batman Begins invests the backstory of Bruce Wayne's embrace of the Batman persona with philosophical depth. Scarred and formed by witnessing his parents murder and the impotence of the legal justice system, Wayne crafts a "symbol" to intimidate evildoers. Batman's quest to restore justice in Gotham is often hard to distinguish from the pursuit of raw vengeance. Thus, Batman himself is always in danger of becoming what he fights against; as Alfred (Michael Caine) warns him in the first film, "don't get lost inside the monster."
Ambitious to make a sequel that would rival in quality the second films in The Godfather and Star Wars trilogies, Nolan focuses in The Dark Knight on the "idea of escalation," the way Batman's dramatic persona, with its violent heroism, calls forth a greater, more creative response from the criminal element. It would be hard to imagine a more compelling embodiment of the escalation of evil in Gotham than what Nolan and actor Heath Ledger have created in the character of The Joker, whose insouciant embrace of chaos eclipses the malevolence of Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs and John Doe from Se7en. What makes Nolan's latest film such a success is not, however, Ledger's compelling presentation of evil, on which critics have focused their attention, but the way in which he uses that character to bring out the depth and complex goodness of the other characters in the film, including Batman. The title of the film is not The Joker but The Dark Knight.
Still, Ledger's performance as The Joker is a chilling and memorable one, superseding all other villains in superhero genre. To account for The Joker, Nolan adverts to no childhood trauma or scientific experiment gone awry. All such explanation is beside the point. At one point, The Joker asks one of his victims whether he wants to hear the story of how he got his scars. He proceeds to explain that his father was a "drunken fiend," who fought with his mother, one night to the point of cutting her with a knife. Having done so, he turned on his stupefied son and, putting the knife to his mouth, asked, "Why so serious?" Then, in a subsequent scene, The Joker tells quite a different story about the source of his scars. The point is clear -- there is no "reason" for the Joker's love of chaos. As Nolan commented, The Joker has "no arc, no development"; he is an "absolute." As he sets fire to a huge pile of money, The Joker chastises the astounded criminals in his midst for their petty love of money. When Bruce Wayne tells Alfred that criminals are "not complicated" and that they just need to find out "what this one wants," Alfred responds, "some men just want to watch the world burn." There is no ultimate purpose to his mayhem; he delights in it for its own sake, as is evident in one particularly chilling scene in which Batman tries to beat him into revealing his plans. As The Joker cackles with glee at the pain, he taunts Batman, "you have nothing to frighten me with."
Beyond good and evil, The Joker is off the human scale. In preparation for the role, Ledger studied the voices of ventriloquist dummies aiming for a chilling effect in which the voice itself sounds "disembodied." Ledger and Nolan looked at Francis Bacon paintings to try to capture the look of "human decay and corruption." As in William Peter Blatty's definitive depiction of demonic evil in The Exorcist, so too here -- the demon's target is us, to make us believe that we are "bestial, ugly, and not worthy of redemption."
If there were a purpose, it would be akin to that pursued by Mr. Glass (Samuel Jackson) in Shyamalan's Unbreakable, whose amoral destruction has as its goal the discovery of someone at the other end of the spectrum, his complement. As The Joker says to Batman, "Why would I want to kill you? What would I do without you? You complete me." So he taunts Batman, "You're just like me -- a freak."
The Joker espouses a nihilist philosophy concerning the arbitrariness of the code of morality in civilized society; it is but a thin veneer, a construct intended for our consolation. If you tear away at the surface, "civilized people will eat each other." As The Joker puts it, "madness is like gravity; all it takes is a little push." In a wonderfully comic take on a Nietzschean sentiment, he sums up his beliefs: "Whatever does not kill you makes you stranger." His character also illustrates the parasitic status of evil and nihilism. A thoroughgoing nihilist could not muster the energy to destroy or create. As The Joker puts it at one point, he's like the dog chasing a car; he has no idea what he would do if he caught it.
The Joker's attempt to bring down the entire system of civilization has the scope and feel of terrorism; in fact, the film features many genuinely terrifying scenes. Here Nolan shares Shyamalan's sense that true suspense and fear require restraint in the direct depiction of gore and the development of characters with whom the audience is sympathetic. In addition to Batman, there are a number of other admirable characters in The Dark Knight. In a film brimming with terrific performances, three stand out: Lieutenant and then Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), the assistant D.A. Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes from Batman Begins), and especially the fearless crime fighting D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), whose tragic undoing at the hands of The Joker is the "arc" upon which the plot pivots. These three illustrate the costs of defending the innocent and fighting against evil, the costs borne by those who would be decent in an indecent world. If in certain prominent instances in this film, the hopes of the audience for these characters are dashed, the film does not succumb to The Joker's vision. It is not nihilistic; it is instead about the lingering and seemingly ineradicable longing for justice and goodness that pervades the film. As Batman put it in the original film, "Gotham is not beyond redemption."
Dark quests for redemption, whether religious or secular, abound in contemporary culture. As Nolan's films indicate, these quest films owe a great debt to classic film noir. Classic noir takes aim at some of the treasured assumptions and promises of modernity. In noir, the modern world, embodied in an urban setting, is hardly the world of light, happiness, and peace that utopian thinkers of the Enlightenment foretold. Modernity is about human beings exercising control over nature and thus taking control of their destinies; in our modern technological project, knowledge and power are one. The postmodern turn in noir is about the loss of control, the absence of intelligibility, and the threat of powerlessness. But the quest has something pre-modern about it -- a sense of human limitations, of the dependence of human beings on one another and on events not in their control. In this world, the outcome of the quest is tenuous and uncertain.
The title of the Nolan's latest Batman film calls to mind medieval chivalry in a postmodern key. The dark knight embraces extraordinary tasks and fights against enormous odds; his quest is to restore what has been corrupted and to recover what has been lost. In so doing, he takes upon himself a suffering and loneliness that isolate him from his fellow citizens and inevitably court their misunderstanding and scorn. He is a dark knight, in part, because the world he inhabits is nearly void of hope and virtue, and, in part, because some of the darkness resides within him, in his internal conflicts between the good he aspires to restore and the means he deploys to fend off evil. Of the many filmmakers designing dark tales of quests for redemption, Christopher Nolan is currently making a serious claim to being the master craftsman.
Thomas S. Hibbs. "Christopher Nolan's Achievement: The Dark Knight." On The Square Blog (July 19, 2008).
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Thomas S. Hibbs is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University. He writes on film regularly for National Review Online and is a frequent guest on radio nationwide to discuss film and popular culture. He has authored many scholarly articles, edited works of Aquinas and Augustine, and published several books including Virtue's Splendor: Wisdom, Prudence, and the Human Good, Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from the Exorcist to Seinfeld and, most recently, Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption.
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