July 22, 2008


Christopher Nolan’s Achievement: The Dark Knight (Thomas S. Hibbs, July 22, 2008, First Things: On the Square)

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.”

In his excellent, Promised Land, Crusader State, Walter MacDougall draws out the point that isolationism like Barrack Obama's doesn't proceed from regard for the people you don't choose to intervene on behalf of but from fear that we'll be contaminated by their societies and what we have to do in order to help.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at July 22, 2008 9:18 AM

I'll be watching this with my brother and six friends on IMAX. Looking forward to it.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at July 22, 2008 12:20 PM

There is the other type of isolationism that would quarantine an evil United States for the good of the world.

I see a lot of that type these days.

Posted by: Mikey at July 22, 2008 12:38 PM

oj's wrong, Mikey's right. Look at Obama's pals. His isolationism is intended to "protect" the rest of the world from an evil America.

Posted by: b at July 22, 2008 2:15 PM

Hear, hear. Obama wants us to import European socialism, he's not trying to protect us from bad foreign influences. (Of course, neither do Bush and OJ when it comes to gangsters from south of the border.)

Posted by: PapayaSF at July 22, 2008 6:20 PM

The gangsters are born here.

Posted by: oj at July 22, 2008 8:06 PM

Obama fled the contamination to come here.

Posted by: oj at July 22, 2008 8:13 PM
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