My Award for Best Film of 2008 goes to *drumroll*:
The Dark Knight.
I never finished my review at the time of this film’s release, because the film blew we away so much I just couldn’t put words in print. Now I own it on DVD and have viewed it again and it still stands to me as the best film I’ve seen (of which I’ve not seen many I shall admit) this year, in a year which had plenty of standouts (Iron Man anyone?)
First and foremost, this is Heath Ledger‘s film. Director Christopher Nolan famously said that he cast Ledger because “he’s fearless”, and his assessment is totally correct. Ledger does not just act his character, he inhabits it. You forget you
are watching an actor as Ledger disappears into The Joker. This is a performance so refined, so cleverly constructed, so controlled (and yet appearing so uncontrolled, as fits The Joker’s personality) that it deserves an Academy Award. All the mannerisms, the little tics, the tongue flick, combine with the excellent makeup and a delicious wardrobe to create a truly memorable Joker. Ledger’s performance truly elevates The Dark Knight from comic book film to crime drama/pscyhological thriller.
This is not to say that everyone else is just doing it by numbers. Christian Bale, who must be acknowledged as one of the best actors of our generation, once again demonstrates the inner conflict that is Bruce Wayne. Aaron Eckhart makes a wonderful Harvey Dent, a handsome poster boy for do-gooders everywhere. His transition into Two Face is at once logical and sad and once again, makes The Dark Knight an examination of the psychology of good versus evil, which often are two sides of the one coin.
My hat goes off to Gary Oldman, returning as good cop Jim Gordon. Oldman is such a consumate performer that, like Ledger, he disappears into the character. What’s more, he doesn’t just play the character straight. He develops little touches that make the character his own and make people care about him. It would have been easy for Gordon to be just a minor sideshow; Oldman makes sure he is not.
Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are, of course, the masters of their craft as they always have been. Freeman especially has developed that little twinkle-in-the-eye (go on, you can almost see the glint) into a trademark. And Caine, even with his limited screentime, makes people interested in Alfred. A lesser actor could have played his lines straight, but Caine gives them that little twist necessary for people to wonder: where is this guy coming from? The addition of a tiny hint at Alfred backstory gives the character more depth.
The only low point in the ensemble for me is Maggie Gyllenhaal. While I have nothing against Maggie and think she is a fine actress, she doesn’t seem to quite fit the role and her chemistry with Bale does seem a little forced. Katie Holmes much better fit the “girl next door” that is Rachel Dawes, and had better chemistry with Bale. She still does a good job though.
Nolan has crafted a film that trascends its comic book, genre roots to become a gritty crime drama with a villain almost too horrible to comprehend. In this way The Dark Knight becomes an examination of psychology, as everyone has to decide how far they are willing to go to achieve their ends. Will Batman break his sworn oath? Will Lucius Fox compromise his morals for public safety? (a cute nod to those who would sacrifice liberty for safety, deserving neither.) Will Harvey Dent become the villain, as he prophesises, by crossing the ultimate line that Batman refuses?
The most random character is, in fact, the most stable. We know who The Joker is and what he wants. As Alfred says to Bruce Wayne: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker has no motivation beyond chaos and the desire to push people beyond their limits, to find the cracks in the personalities of others and exploit them for his own amusement. In this way he is the one constant in all of the characters, and in this way he is core to the film. Through The Joker we get to watch the other character’s struggle with their personal dilemmas and demons. Through The Joker we get to see the darkness to which people can descend if there is enough motivation. And it is through The Joker that we see The Dark Knight ascend to magnificence. Let Ledger have his Oscar, for regardless that he has passed from us, he still bloody well deserves it.