The Dark Knight a depressive epic

CanWest News Service
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The new Batman movie The Dark Knight is long, loud, and agonizing, two-and-a-half hours of bipolar soul-searching, much of it about the nature of heroism.

The new Batman movie The Dark Knight is long, loud, and agonizing, two-and-a-half hours of bipolar soul-searching, much of it about the nature of heroism.

If you look at the issues the way we count on others to save us and then hate them for it, the propriety of using illegal force for the greater good, the utter coolness of fast, bulletproof vehicles its easy to see parallels with Iraq and Gitmo and Afghanistan and other current events.

Perhaps the superhero film has always plumbed such depths of the American soul, but the American soul may not have cared so much before. Batman is the right movie at the right time, especially if you have a burning desire to be excited and depressed simultaneously.

The film takes place in large, half-empty rooms or soaring above modern cities. Its the most architectural of the summer films, a cityscape of terrors that is another indication that Batman may be Us and Gotham may be Here.

There are three sides to its mad triangle: Batman, played for the second time by Christian Bale as tormented billionaire Bruce Wayne, realizes the stain on his soul and thirst for revenge cannot be cleansed by arresting villains, although arrest them he must; The Joker, a stupendous creation by the late Heath Ledger and portrayed as a psychotic butcher with a fondness for carving people a new smile (Why so serious?, he asks, licking his lips frequently); and between them, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a lantern-jawed district attorney who is good and bad two-faced, as it were a pragmatic crimefighter who is just what the public wants, the public having turned against the Batman although they need him more than ever.

Batman has been given a new outfit by his weapons expert Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), one that allows him to turn his head the better to be conflicted with, two faces being the presiding metaphor in the film and a new vehicle, the Bat-Pod, a motorcycle that is essentially two truck tires with handlebars. But the man riding it is a tormented vigilante: Bruce Wayne is a devil-may-care playboy with supermodel girlfriends hes Hugh Hefner in a cowl but as Batman, he wheezes like someone doing a Clint Eastwood impression. This is a man at war with himself and losing.

On the other side is the Joker, brought to frightening life by Ledger in white pancake makeup with a chaotic slash of red across his mouth.

He glints and poses: you hear a bit of Jack Nicholson in the lower register of his whine, and you see a bit of Robert Downey, Jr. in the arrhythmic twitch of his darting glances.

Hes a showstopper, the flip side of the superhero. He cant let Batman retire because he needs him. You complete me, he says.

Theres a scene where he is dressed in a nurses uniform, tottering away from a doomed building with a gait that actually defines his madness. Its the most hypnotic walk since John Wayne.

Some men just want to watch the world burn, says Freeman, positioning the Joker as the greatest of our modern fears: anarchy.

The plot has Batman preparing to hand over the reins of public salvation to Dent, who has already taken his girlfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal, a pixie dwarfed by fascist-heroic costume and set design). But the Joker is the wild card and his pranks, which test the limits of human nature, have Batman alternately whaling the tar out of him and posing thoughtfully on the tops of skyscrapers or the depths of ruined buildings.

Christopher Nolan also directed Memento, which shares the jigsaw sense of time: things lurch forward with little connection, adding to the movies mood of insanity.

You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time, the Eckhart character says to Batman near the end, another clue that were in the presence of something epic and disturbing.

This is a movie that turns its heroes into villains and its villains into immortals.

Its a haunting mess.

Four stars out of five

Organizations: Bat-Pod

Geographic location: Iraq, Afghanistan

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