Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Dark Knight: A fun movie, but disturbing in its exploitation

Warning: Spoiler alert.

I waited a long time for this movie. A long time because I was salivating for this one from the end of Batman Begins. A long time because it came out at the start of the Three Weeks, so that I had to wait until after Tisha b’Av to see it. And a long time because I wanted to see it on an Imax screen – to mirror my experience of the previous Batman film – and I had to manipulate many schedule items to make this trip work. And all along I was reading reviews hyping the film as being as close to perfection as you can get.

I loved Batman Begins. I can quote entire paragraphs of the script, even though I saw it ages ago. It was everything I would want, which is good given that I see about one film per year. And everyone said that the sequel was even better.

So, maybe I came in to this one with unreasonable expectations. But I came away not disappointed, but disturbed.

First, the basic review:

Batman – Still a great anti-hero, still has an attitude, preserved his edge of humor. My one complaint: I was waiting for one big moment when he would do something dramatically heroic, akin to the several great heroic scenes in the previous movie (ie his moment on the roof when he reveals his identity to Rachel and then dives into battle), and I didn’t really see any such moments.

Killing off Rachel Dawes – Personally unsatisfying (I like it when the hero gets the girl), but understandable. She couldn’t really get together with Batman without betraying the character’s internal logic, and she couldn’t go on forever not-getting him, and as long as she was around he couldn’t connect with anyone else, so she had to go.

Gordon, Alfred and Lucius were great, as always. Stunts were amazing, of course, and mostly without venturing into the overdone, chase-across-the-rooftops Bourne Ultimatum type of stunts.

I found the ethical exploration (“Which one do I kill?” “Do I put myself first, or others first?” “What happens to people when you push them to choose?” etc) to be way overdone, like reading Ralph Ellison; it was just too dense. And, perhaps, I didn't appreciate it because I am numb to these conundrums. I deal with them regularly, both in the abstract philosophical world of Jewish thought and the very real world of people’s practical questions.

Bottom line, I really enjoyed the movie. It was the fastest two-and-a-half hours I've spent in a long time.

But here’s my problem: I was disturbed by Heath Ledger’s Joker performance – because it was so on target.

I've spent a fair number of hours in psych units and working with people who are dealing with serious psychological ailments. Ledger’s mannerisms, his speech patterns, the way he shifted between eye-contact and no eye-contact, the way he ran his hands through his hair, his gait, it was all just exactly what I’ve seen in people with serious psychological problems. It was too accurate - it felt like exploitation of those people, like someone was holding them up for entertainment, if not mockery. It felt wrong.

I find it easier to deal with a villain whose wrongdoing I can write off for moral failings and the like. It seems I have a harder time with a villain whose life is so clearly reflected in the lives of everyday people who have psychological problems.

Still a great movie, but… disturbing.


  1. Another scary-because-he's-too-believable character is Detective Robert Goren in Law and Order (I forget which version). Subtle, less obvious pathology; but worrying at times and all too real. On the rare occasions that I watch TV, that show is among the few I'll readily agree to.

  2. I enjoyed the movie but I probably would have shortened it by about 15minutes.

    There are a couple of late plot developments in there that probably could have been saved for a different movie.

  3. Mordechai-
    Interesting. If I ever start on TV, I'll have to check it out.

    I think they crammed those things in because they wanted to write the book on ethical decision-making and choosing between two evils; hence the insistence on bringing Two-Face into this film at all.

  4. But that's exactly what's so annoying about As Good As It Gets... Jack Nicholson's character begins the movie with all of his OCD symptoms fully active, and by the end, many of them have mysteriously fallen away. Yes, he returns to his meds, but the fairly sudden transition didn't feel real at all. The interesting part was earlier on, when he clearly has feelings for her, and for the other people around him, but his disorder is constantly at odds with his ability to express his feelings.

  5. Finally, saw the movie, so I am now reading your post. Enjoyed your take on the ethics of the movie. Now I understand why people were so excited about Heath Ledger's performance. I can also understand your uneasiness with it-- it was too good, too on the mark.