The Dark Knight
Luiz Felipe Rosa Lippel
Dr. Elizabeth Heffelfinger
In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), we see one of the most dramatic points in the life of Bruce Wayne, a billionaire tormented by his past who fights to protect the city of Gotham. Nolan is the third director to adapt to film Bob Kane’s classic comic book character Batman, and he brings new perspectives to the story. In this neo-noir piece the cinematic elements of the story like mise-en-scène, sound, and camera movement work to convey how an anarchical man dressed as a clown, who calls himself the Joker, embodies villainy and leads Gotham into chaos. Portrayed by Heath Ledger, the Joker’s character becomes as big as the film itself. He was immortalized by the mass-media who claimed his acting to be a masterpiece, and honored with a posthumous Oscar from the academy awards for best supporting actor. The Joker character pushes the supposed heroes of the story to the limit, leading them into very ambiguous situations by trying to disestablish their sense of morals, ethics, and justice; the joker makes the audience reflect about the same matters.
Nolan’s first adaptation was the 2005 film Batman Begins, where he tells the origins of the character. Bruce Wayne, after witnessing the death of his parents, grew up preparing himself physically and intellectually, searching for a way to fight injustice. He decides to clear the criminality and poverty out of the city of Gotham as his father once tried, protecting his family legacy and honoring their memory. Alfred Pennyworth, his loyal butler and childhood legal guardian helps him to create the persona of the Batman, and Lucius Fox, a brilliant engineer from Bruce Enterprise, also helps by supplying a high tech arsenal and keeping his secret. As Batman fights criminals he allies himself with Jim Gordon, a policeman, and the attorney Rachel Dawes, his childhood friend and love of his life.
At this point the story of The Dark Knight begins, with an establishing shot of Gotham, something very well utilized by Nolan throughout the movie to convey the enormous size and imposing aspect of the city. The audience is then introduced, through crosscutting, to five men dressed as clowns who kill each other while doing the robbery until only one is left to with the money. He is the Joker, the one who masterminded the robbery. He reveals his identity in an overpowering mise-en-scène set with a close up from a low-angle shot, where he takes off his clown mask to show a robbery victim his painted and scarred face. His behavior changes, becoming more menacing, along with the soundtrack that turns into a loud non-diegetic noise like a disturbing siren alarm.
Gordon, now a Lieutenant in the police force, and allied with Batman, tries to eradicate Gotham’s organized crime by taking over the mob. Meanwhile, Harvey Dent, “Gotham’s White Knight,” arises as Gotham’s new D.A., and fights organized crime in court. Here we are first introduced to Harvey’s lucky coin that later comes to be one of the most important props in the movie. Harvey’s work gets Bruce’s attention; Harvey becomes the hope for Bruce to give up his role as Batman. However, Dent is dating Rachel who once promised Bruce that someday, when Gotham no longer needs Batman, they could be together. She has become both Bruce’s and Harvey’s hope for the future. Together, Gordon, Batman, and Dent pursue the mob incessantly. With no options left the mob turns to the Joker, who has just taken down Gamble, the only drug dealer who was fully against him. In this scene, half an hour into the film, is the first time the Joker tells the story behind his scars, supposedly showing the emotions that drive the Joker character’s actions. Later, we come to know that it is all a lie.
While preparing a party at his penthouse to gather money for Harvey’s political career, Bruce sees on the television news a video of the Joker threatening to kill a person every day until Batman turns himself in to the police. This scene is shown through a peculiar form, like a low quality video used by terrorists. This use of form conveys a creepy and terrifying view of the Joker. During the party, we see through parallel editing that the Joker arranged to kill the Commissioner of Police and the Judge who convicted the mob; this cross-cut ends when the Joker breaks into the Bruce’s penthouse looking for Dent. In this scene the Joker tells for the second time the origin of his scars, but this time the story has a special importance; here all the cinematic elements come together with Heath Ledger’s acting. He achieves “expressive coherence” tighten together his appropriateness in the role with the way he plays the feelings behind the character, as described in the book Looking at Movies, (Barsan & Monaham 310). Ledger acts comfortably as he portrays this mysterious character, and in the scene at the penthouse, is where he changes the story behind his scars revealing the psychotic nature of the Joker that is manipulative and deceiving. He makes a motif out of the phrase “do you know how I got these scars?” while his characterization is exacerbated through a moving camera that goes around the Joker drawing us to the character, as if he were a gravitational center. He incorporates the cinematic language that is also magnified by the non-diegetic siren noise that pops out again, growing louder as the Joker takes over the screen.
Later, near the middle of the film, Harvey Dent pretends to be the Batman and turns himself in to the police. Rachel complains that he cannot leave something like this to chance, but he replies that he is not. Throwing his coin to her before going into custody Rachel realizes that it is a two-headed coin, while repeating his statement in the beginning of the film: “I made my own luck.” The coin conveys Harvey’s apparently incorruptible and straightforward character; the two-faces are the same, complementary. Turning himself in was Harvey’s plan to help the Batman capture the Joker, but he actually wanted to be taken into Gordon’s police department. The scene in the police station is where the Joker reveals the extent of his psychotic character. When Gordon lets Batman interrogate the Joker, he finally shows his objective of establishing chaos, as he states: “When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.” The Joker tells Batman that he has kidnapped Harvey and Rachel, he tells where they are, but only after mocking Batman’s inability to threaten him. Batman goes after Rachel, but ends up finding Dent instead, who burns half of his face in an explosion. Gordon, who was trying to save Harvey, was actually going to where Rachel was, but he does not get there in time and she dies in an explosion. While Batman and Gordon are gone, Joker, who had everything planned, flees the police station, exploding great part of it.
This last act of the Joker unleashes a series of ambiguous and unethical actions from the other characters. Bruce, with Alfred’s support and the memory that Rachel had chosen him instead of Harvey before dying, recovers and stands again as Batman. Near the end of the film the Joker set bombs all over town stating, through another terrorist video on television, that the city now belongs to him. Batman is able to spy on the mobile phones of the whole town with an unethical machine and finds the Joker’s location, finally capturing him. However the battle for Gotham’s soul was already lost; the Joker was able to turn Harvey. Before getting caught for good, the Joker convinces Harvey that the only fairness in life is through chance, transforming him into the villain persona of Two-face. Dent let his coin, now with one side burned like his own face, become the object that guides his actions. The coin becomes a motif, the symbol of the Joker’s damage; he has perverted Harvey’s figure of hope into a portrait of chaos. Harvey chases one by one those who he thinks are responsible for Rachel’s death until he gets to Gordon, threatening to kill his family. Batman, after killing Harvey to save Gordon’s son, punctuates the film’s philosophy: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” By taking responsibility for Harvey’s killings, Batman once again becomes a hunted man. The last parallel editing shows Batman running away from the cops; while Alfred burns a letter left by Rachel to Bruce where she wrote that she had chosen Harvey over him; Gordon destroys the bat signal; Lucius destroys the unethical machine; and Gordon again, now Gotham’s commissioner, glorifies Dent’s death, as he was a hero. The only salvation to the Joker’s damages is found through lies. The character of Batman ends up described by Gordon as more than a hero, a Dark Knight. What makes him the ultimate heroic figure is his endurance while facing the devastation created by the Joker. Like Alfred once described him during the movie, “that’s the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.”
The film ends and the Joker remains more important than any other character. He was capable of dragging the audience into a constant state of stress, fear, confusion, and psychological exhaustion. Through his outstanding interpretation, Heath Ledger manipulates the cinematic elements with his character, achieving an amazing aesthetic consistency. The Joker steals and twists the mise-en-scène every time he appears: burning fire trucks, riding police cars, creating panic with the figure of the clown. He even turns the camera up-side-down, in his last appearance, stating that “madness is like gravity” The joker goes beyond his character, he incorporates the film language becoming a disturbing synthesis of the movie themes of fear, ambiguity and chaos.