Contains spoilers for The Dark Knight
If an analogy for mainstream cinema is the three minute pop song, then The Dark Knight is a fifteen minute progressive rock epic, complete with harpsichord solo, spoken word interlude and a huge bag of whizz-bang pyrotechnics – with is another way of saying it’s very long. According to my bony backside (always a good arbiter of cinematic quality), its 150 minute running time seemed like five hours – too much dialogue, slow pacing, two endings, scenes that simply go on and on and on. To be honest, I’m surprised that any backside could take it (perhaps there’s a marketing opportunity here for the Chip Smith ‘Numb-o-meter’ – just don’t ask me how it works as I haven’t invented it yet).
So, The Dark Knight. Mark Ravenhill thinks this. On the other hand, John Truby thinks this. In all honesty, I suspect the reason this film has been so stratospherically successful is down to one thing: Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. It really is a tour-de-force, as if Ledger has somehow managed to channel the craziest bits of Jack Nicholson through a dilapidated mental asylum. Not that either John Truby or Mark Ravenhill is wrong, of course: Ravenhill thinks there’s too much dialogue and not enough action, and he’s right; Truby believes that “The Dark Knight proves that a movie can be a huge hit because of theme, not in spite of it,” and he’s right as well. And yet strangely I find myself disagreeing with both of them.
Ordinarily, the more complex a plot, the happier I am, and the series of constant moral conundrums that The Dark Knight throws at you are more than welcome – this is a film that the term ‘blockbuster with a brain’ was invented for. However, this narrative and moral complexity tends to disguise the fact that there isn’t really a great deal of emotional content at the movie’s core. The narrative is technically proficient – perhaps overly so – but within its complexities, something gets lost along the way.
Compare The Dark Knight with Tell No One, a superb French film from Guillaume Canet, adapted from the novel by Harlan Coben. Although the narrative of Tell No One is complex, the central spine of the story is simple, and focuses on Beck’s frantic search for his supposedly dead wife. The Dark Knight has a complex narrative and a dizzying array of themes, the combination of which seem to squeeze all the humanity out of the film.
Interestingly, The Dark Knight is unusual as far as Christopher Nolan’s usual modus operandi goes, inasmuch as it’s told in a linear fashion. The narrative cut ups of Following and The Prestige are nowhere to be seen, mostly because things are complicated enough. However, what the linear narrative does expose here I think is the fact that at its heart, The Dark Knight feels a little empty. Unwind The Prestige and Following and you might even find something similar – that their complex narrative structures successfully disguise the fact that neither of them really entirely manage to engage the viewer on an emotional level. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both great films, but like The Dark Knight, the overall feel is of movies that have been ruthlessly designed, much like a Swiss watch or a formal garden where messy, unpredictable nature doesn’t really have much of a place.
The film’s politics seemed a bit skewed to me as well: mass surveillance of Gotham’s citizenry which is justified by the fact that a single terrorist might be caught at some future point (hmm, sounds familiar); the cover up of Harvey Dent’s crimes due to the fact that the people of Gotham ‘need a hero’. The Dark Knight doesn’t spend too long pondering these uncomfortable questions, which are arguably more interesting than the moral conundrums that John Truby points out.
Anyway, it’s probably pointless arguing with box office receipts in excess of $300 million. Let’s hope that Christopher Nolan does something outside of the Batman franchise next time out...