The Dark Knight Review: Direction

Nolan’s Batman trilogy clearly fits into the movement of big fantasy films that started around the year 2000 and his movies are intended to be the cinematic equals of the best of the genera--probably The Lord of the Rings movies. However, Nolan’s films are neither meaningful nor well constructed on the level that their pomp or their generic association demands. The Dark Knight begs to be viewed on a grand scale, but it doesn’t live up to that premise at all. Movies in this trend are difficult to parse as far as success and failure go on addressing action, story, and theme well amidst modern filmmaking techniques. Nevertheless, audiences seem to realize that the Transformers movies are pretty bad, but Transformers and The Dark Knight alike present themselves as something for the ages with epic scope and bombast but neither of them really could be so enduring.

How a movie makes its demands and gains its overarching distinctiveness is a matter of direction by which I mean its creative background. Setting the expectations visually and thematically is key in movies and is very much the work of the director. I’m starting here because I think that Nolan makes important cues to the audience in an attempt to set this movie apart from run of the mill, blockbuster fare. I’m also starting here because it’s where movies start in the process of being made; being designed by writers, directors, and producers before the cameras roll. There’s important reasoning that goes into the direction a movie takes; there is an effect on the final product.

Christopher Nolan is, importantly, a writer/director on this film and his status as something of an auteur means that his stamp is everywhere it could be in this movie. But if a movie’s script is bad, no amount of good acting or good directing can save it. It is the case that the writing in The Dark Knight is hollow, and Nolan’s direction showy to make up the ground. Apart from the story itself which is meandering, the writing here is trying to get at some important points of morality, but the philosophy is only half there and is not really powerful. Thus the movie adopts a lot of narrative flare and technique to cover up the short comings of the second-rate thought that went into the script. I’ll examine the story itself later, for now I’d like to look at the script as a means Nolan uses to put forward his ideas.

In the literature surrounding this movie, not to mention the pontifications of the characters in the movie, there is clearly an attempt to make this more than an action movie; “he’s not being a hero, he’s being something more.” An action movie with a brain as it were. The Dark Knight is absolutely in contrast to most action movies that are of its large scale, fantasy/action genre such as Wrath of the Titans or Transformers. In the case of Transformers, the movie is literally about the hot women, fast cars, and particularly the big explosions. It’s about spectacle. The Dark Knight is trying to provide some kind of spectacle for the mind as well but the script does not reflect the depth and breadth of the ideas needed to make that spectacle as engrossing as it needs to be in a movie with this scope. It’s really irritating too because The Dark Knight would have all these things--ethics and action--be equal.

Needless to say the opposition of forces characteristic to superhero stories is a great means for portraying diverse social or psychological or philosophical material. One can easily add direction to a struggle between good and evil that reflects an argument. Themes, motifs, symbols, allegories; it’s all part of good narrative and it’s the work of the storyteller. These are not totally foreign to the genre The Dark Knight finds itself in or something that this movie does better than other movies or works of narrative literature have the world over. In fact The Dark Knight uses literature rather poorly compared to some of the oldest or simplest narratives. As literature The Dark Knight doesn’t reflect brilliant authorship and it’s silly to assume that it does.

Consider how shallow and uninteresting the idea of nihilism is especially when it is presented with Batman and the Joker. This is an important point of the movie as a whole, and it requires more discussion ,but in terms of the writing, nihilism seems like a bad choice with a Batman movie for reasons I’ll examine later. The point is, no matter how divisive or interesting it might be in principle, nihilism is kind of a shaky proposition and one that works terribly in a dramatic sense when one character subscribes to a nihilist perspective and the other character represents a universal opposition to that notion. It’s the case in The Dark Knight, that the very notion of Batman is enough to counter the Joker’s notion of nihilism. Seeing them fight about it really isn’t that interesting given the facts. Yet Nolan is writing this philosophy into his film so that he has something more to say.

Additionally, just in the script, there seems to be a lot of effort to make up for pseudo-intellectualism in this movie by making the writing more accessible. In this case Nolan is falling back on snappy dialogue, clichés, and convoluted plot points to make the perhaps interesting but clearly misplaced philosophy of his movie more engaging than it would be otherwise or could be with the characters of this universe. There are obvious examples that prove the point:

So after considerable retreading over who and what these characters are, what they represent, and various ways they see themselves in the world, the audience is treated to the pro forma showdown between them. Classic narrative stylings. I like that. Then the Joker describes the conflict between himself and Batman as “an unstoppable force meeting an immoveable object.” This line in this place is about as interesting as saying “I’m a nihilist, you’re a hard ethicist and we conflict” if not more irritating because it’s so overwrought. These kinds of lines predominate. I scoff at the closing line being “[Batman is]...a dark knight” in reference to Batman not only because it’s the title of the movie (always kind of silly) but because in this context it’s an attempt at intellect delivered so as to have the same legitimacy and validity as a taxonomical name for Batman (Homo Chiroptera Sapiens no doubt) and it tries to make the movie about something it’s not.

This kind of writing clouds what’s really at stake and what’s really going on in The Dark Knight. The ‘Wow-Factor’ to The Dark Knight, and indeed most Nolan films, is absurdly high. It starts with dialogue here and ends with complicated chase scenes. That’s not to say that a Wow-Factor is a bad thing (as Hugo pointed out, movies have the unique ability to capture dreams), it’s an important and major draw to movies as an art. But Wow-Factor doesn’t replace actual brilliance. I find Nolan’s approach very pacifying. In a Nolan film the Wow-Factor ceases to be engrossing in favor of belligerence; “come and get my movie,” he dares the audience. I’ll examine how Nolan does this in a moment, first I’d like to examine a stylistic counter example.

Seven Samurai (1954) is rightfully considered one of the greatest films by one of the greatest masters ever. Yet The Dark Knight is at this point the more praised movie. I find the two similar yet very different; a very simple opposition of good and bad, a very process involved story where the characters learn what it means to assume the mantle of a protector, an obnoxious running time, these are some similarities. But the focus and the process Kurosawa brings to his movie is engrossing over it’s 207 epic minutes. It’s impossible not to understand the compelling visual imagery as the highlighted samurai battle the dark and faceless enemies in the mud. It screams of the lengths one must go to to protect the helpless from an almost animalistic force of evil in human nature. This isn’t heavy handed, it’s thoughtful. It’s brilliant.

Nolan would never attempt Kurosawa’s approach, not because it doesn’t interest him but because he’s incapable of it. Most directors are so incapable. But I think that good directors label their attempts as such and would in competitive spirit clap the better man on the back when he demonstrates his skill. Kurosawa was lucky enough to out do Seven Samurai late in his career, though he never quite got the international award to prove it. The Dark Knight is about all Nolan has the ability to do. I know that because he used every trick in his book and didn’t seem to consider that there might be reasoning to legitimize different approaches like those of the great directors.

Nolan is a formulaic director who pulls out a limited number of stops when he makes his movie. While the following analysis might be only of director trademarks, I think that the trademarks’ predominance in Nolan’s films are for reasons beyond simply style but, as I’ve said, as methods to grope for a Kurosawa level ability without a comparable level of competence. Nolan can’t do it any other way. Oppositional characters, a hospital explosion, practical effects, and materialist sensibilities all have been used in one or another of his movies and even to great effect. To make these methods singular in one’s filmmaking is a really imperfect method; it speaks to his limited ability as a director despite the seeming success guarantee that comes from employing such basic methods; these are Nolan’s tools and he’s not really adaptable.

The Prestige, another misunderstood film by Nolan, is perhaps the best example of such oppositional characters as one finds in The Dark Knight. Clearly it’s also brought to the surface by the fact, also, that there are really only the two characters in opposition as compared to The Dark Knight where every character absurdly seems to oppose every other character at one time or another. While oppositional characters often work well and are a staple of many if not most or even all narratives, I think that the extent of the conflicts Nolan seems predisposed to put his characters in undermines the possibility of there being other dynamics perhaps based around some kind of comparison or congruence between opposed characters. While neither The Prestige nor The Dark Knight would necessarily benefit from such a construction, Nolan’s work beyond these two films proves he has little interest and may be even incapable of designing a different interplay between characters.

The presence of hospital explosions in these successive films--The Dark Knight and Inception--may simply be coincidence but it does beg the question. Why is a hospital explosion so relevant and important to both these movies? And while I can’t offer an answer, I’m willing to say that this particular trope of his movies is something that is not entirely dictated by the story but rather by Nolan’s effort to have a strong connection to the audience he might not otherwise have if it weren’t a hospital or an explosion of great magnitude. Both of those elements are so charged in the viewer’s mind and his presentation is so sweeping that the viewer can’t help but be pacified by the event in either film. It’s cool, but is it necessary for any other reason; no.

Something in his execution of his films in general that I do have to give Nolan a lot of credit for is his propensity for practical effects. I was really pleased that Inception won best special effects when it did because that was a movie which demonstrated that effects were about more than just being some kind of adjunct detail on a film. Nolan uses effects well because he does value a brilliant effect over just a completed one, and the effects are often part of the storytelling. I like that. Nevertheless he can lapse into using effects just for spectacle; a sometimes acceptable but often problematic wrinkle in the special effects conundrum. Often in The Dark Knight there are times where an effect should not have been used at all because it doesn’t fit with the aesthetic of the other effects shots--a helicopter crash, a Bat-Vision sonar.

Finally, underlying many of Nolan’s directorial choices is his heavy handed materialism. I think that even his most cerebral movies, Inception and Memento, have sort of unequivocal answers to the psychological conundrums presented. No matter how difficult or what manner of a twist Nolan throws at the audience, his movies have a certain neatness to them. Again, materialism isn’t a problem necessarily, in fact it may be Nolan’s meticulous thought behind answering as many of the questions he can about the story in a surprising way that makes many of his movies so popular. But I can’t imagine Nolan would appreciate the less-is-more doctrine that seems to underly the very best psychological puzzle movies such as Persona or Last Year at Mareinbad.

One of the important results of direction is of course tone, that is how a movie feels. I’d like to examine this movie as it fits into the grand scheme of movies and particularly movies in its genre. Later I will do an analysis of the themes in The Dark Knight, but the themes here are very much enhanced by the tone the director has taken with the material. Yet what irks me somewhat is that the dark and brooding tone that critics and movie goers alike revere this movie for bringing to the screen is just part of a trend in movies for the past forty years or so. It’s not even a necessary trend. I think the tone of The Dark Knight is relatively derivative and used again to legitimize Nolan’s techniques and conceal the limited efficacy this movie would have on audiences otherwise.

First The Dark Knight’s dark tone isn’t really something new to movies. It’s really a no brainer as artists have continually pushed the boundaries of what’s considered valid in their medium. Censorship has abounded in cinema to a degree but it clearly hasn’t stemmed the tide of movies that get branded as bringing new levels of realism or graphic content to theaters. In this regard I think it’s safe to say that there hasn’t been much of a real breakthrough in terms of what can be depicted on screen since the early 70’s when movies like A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, and The Godfather were in fact changing the tone of movies. Perhaps this general trend in movies has come to something of a fever pitch over the past decade as “rating drift” moves films toward showing more content in lower ratings, but I don’t act surprised when I see a movie like The Dark Knight. Let me stress, Nolan is less creating a tone for his movie, rather borrowing in this case.

The other major historical trend that features strongly in The Dark Knight is the Post-9/11 cinematic style. (I’ll discuss the Post-9/11 style in more depth when I get into this movie’s themes.) Suffice it to say that Christopher Nolan’s direction is in good company here. Nolan hasn’t created anything particularly new. At best he’s hybridized the superhero movie with the modern techniques that abound in cinema today. I think that any other director would have taken a similar approach in regard to the tone of a Batman movie made in 2008 simply because this happens to be what movies made in 2008 look like. Frantic cinematography, terrorist plots, and so on go into Post-9/11 cinema and until we turn a new page I think this breed of film will be commonplace. The same way we look at old movies now as having trademarks of their time, I think that The Dark Knight will look dated in forty years. That fact speaks to The Dark Knight’s legacy, the best works of cinema tend to transcend the style of the time in which they were made.

Here’s the damning side of the approach to tone in The Dark Knight too, it’s basically unnecessary from a theoretical point of view. The need for a movie to be ‘darker’ is simply a fallacy. A fallacy that is confirmed repeatedly in movies made these days, but the fact remains that the dark approach is hardly the only approach even when the material is considered dramatic. The reasoning goes that there exist some movies which are both good and have a dark tone. That’s a true enough statement. The fallacy is committed when the assumption is made that all movies with a dark tone are good and then to conclude that these statements are equivalent basically by saying that a dark tone is causal of a movie’s good qualities. One does not entail the other: (∃x) Dx&Gx ⊬ (∀x) Dx⊃Gx. Stated this way, the “darkness is better” trend is clearly false. But it is a fallacy that is so entrenched in cinema today that there’s little hope to buck the system that seems hellbent on keeping dramatic films gritty and dark.

Needless to say, there are some counter examples. A Serious Man is a movie that tackles themes of life, death, religion and so forth with a great amount of levity. But for every A Serious Man there’s so many more movies taking the heavy handed approach. Now I’m not saying that The Dark Knight would be better as a comedy or with any more levity than it has now. That’s not the case. What is the case is that The Dark Knight’s approach isn’t one that is outside of longstanding trends in cinema, or that is categorically superior for dealing with moral conundrums. Both approaches are valid. Ultimately though, I find A Serious Man more serious because it demands my attention in its way (often in ways I didn’t expect) rather than my compliance with its structure. It’s honest and often challenging.

Adjunct to, and clearly in service of, the tone of a movie is the cinematography, and as a matter of how the film is intended to look, I’d like to discuss cinematography in The Dark Knight here. Nolan isn’t the cinematographer, but he has worked with Wally Pfister on several films and I’d consider the cinematography in Nolan films to be consistent with his other identifying trademarks as a director. Believe me I give these two credit for making distinctive movies with a lot of power to them, but I’m inclined to raise questions concerning, for example, how the appearance of the film supports the film thematically or dramatically or in any other significant way. Again I think that The Dark Knight has some shortcomings.

First is the unstable aspect-ratio in The Dark Knight. It switches between a 1.85:1 ratio for the IMAX scenes to a 2.35:1 ratio for the regular, 36mm film. It might not seem like a big deal, but the change between these two frames changes the meaning of a shot and thus the meaning of the work as a whole. When Nolan can’t determine what frame he want’s the audience to see by switching arbitrarily the way he does here, I’m left a little unsure of what the importance of what’s in the image is. Watching the movie, I find the IMAX scenes to be the clearer ones in terms of action. I think the fluid camera work is better with the sweeping action when the frame is taller. Shorter frames require more careful framing and Pfister isn’t particularly precise.

The Dark Knight is a movie that likes it’s quick camera moves and uses them a lot. The action almost feels obscured when it’s shot with this freeform camera movement. As a matter of taste, I don’t like it. I want to have the clear frame for the action in a movie that is so heavily dependent on action. There’s a lot of choreographed fight scenes in this movie and I would appreciate the ability to appreciate that choreography more fully by having clearer framing.

But the final and most important cinematographic choice in The Dark Knight is in fact the literal darkness of much of the movie. Not in terms of narrative or thematic tone at this point, more the actual predominance of darkness on screen. A lot of times it can be hard to tell what is on screen or where a character ends and a shadow begins because the shot will be of a man, wearing black, at night. There’s not a lot of light in a shot like that. There could be more. A movie such as There Will Be Blood managed to make shots both dark and clear--a real feat of good cinematography--and the crisp look didn’t deplete the film of it’s power at all. Literal cinematic darkness in service of theme is really just as much a fallacy as the darkness fallacy is itself.

Clearly in The Dark Knight the cinematography is intended to enhance the point of the movie overall. As I’ve said, Nolan is treading all over topics he wants to address seriously regardless of how serious his ability is to address those topics. Cinematography is a great way to support the meaning and tone of the movie, but I’m sure this movie did not require the cinematography to be so questionable. If anything the amount of action should have inclined Pfister to capture the action in a compelling and clear way.

In Apocalypse Now the brightness shifts from clear to totally dark when the characters approach zones of totally incomprehensible madness. In Apocalypse Now the cinematography is closely related to the meaning of each scene in a way that few other movies even attempt. But the value of the cinematography is still great even when the frame is dark because that darkness and obscured image is part of the meaning of the work. Not so in The Dark Knight where the cinematography is dark to purvey the grave tone of a movie that doesn’t have the depth to merit the use of deliberately poor camera work.

What I really have to say for The Dark Knight in terms of it’s direction is that it is carefully crafted. But it is not crafted for the purposes that one is led to believe. The movie is serious and bombastic, but the writing and intelligence isn’t there to merit the direction that Nolan takes this film. The Dark Knight is primarily an action film that is riding the wave of new, big, and occasionally good fantasy films that have been surprisingly consistent box office draws since The Lord of the Rings proved the concept more than ten years ago. Nolan wants his film to be in a pantheon with the best, and he’s had the commercial and critical success to basically legitimize anything he attempts to get his movie into that circle. The Dark Knight however cannot cut the mustard no matter how much it is designed to look like it does.