Dear Film Critics,
Really, everyone? Really? I know how this is going to come off to those of you who are still quivering under its dark, moody spell, but someone has to do it. Especially in these increasingly bleak and dire times. I realize we’re talking about a comic book that has been recycled into yet another huge-budget Hollywood summer blockbuster here, but I still find it hard to believe my eyes as I read review after review of gushing praise for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Or maybe I watched a different movie than everyone else? Could that be it? No, the movie I watched was called The Dark Knight too, and it also happened to be two-and-a-half hours long (I know because I checked the time on numerous occasions). But here’s the thing. The movie I watched wasn’t any different than the rest of the broad-stroke muck that permeates our nation’s multiplexes. It was just as long-winded, shapeless, formulaic, and deadening as the most generic big-budget buffoonery out there. You can call me a snob if you want to, go right ahead. I’m simply calling the movie out for what it is: a glossy, pseudo-’deep’ work of mass consumer-friendly torture porn.
After only one weekend of release, The Dark Knight is already the most successful torture porn spectacle ever made. And you can try to argue with me about that, but you’re wrong. The Dark Knight is PG-13 rated torture porn. It shouldn’t be categorized with other live-action super hero movies when it hits the DVD shelf. It should be thrown into the corner with the Hostel and Saw 9 and all of those neu-horror remakes that are only interested in shocking-and-awing viewers with senseless violence and gore. There’s a difference between making a film about moral ambiguity and corruption, and making an ambiguous and corrupt film. How so many critics have mistaken Nolan’s lazy, unformed, meandering storytelling for epic, triumphant craftsmanship baffles me. I can understand the general public falling for it. That’s what they’re here to do. And let it be known, on that level, Nolan succeeds. He has made the type of film that average viewers will think is ’smart’ and ‘challenging’ and ‘artistic.’ And as for the comic book nerds and childhood fans who cling to Batman in the same way that I cling to March Madness, their devotion is a given. I’m not talking to you guys (I could tell you that your Batman Underoos are too tight and you wouldn’t believe me). I’m addressing this to the critics who have watched a lot of movies and understand the difference between something that masks itself as ‘important’ and ‘epic’ and something that is just a somewhat spiced up version of the same old tired tune.
I am all for violence in cinema. I am all for anarchy. I am all for lawlessness and tragedy and hopelessness and evil. I love being transported into terrifying worlds in which justice and good are doomed from the outset. I loved Se7en, and, more recently, The Strangers. I believe that the remake of The Hills Have Eyes is an extraordinary achievement. I love being made to feel miserable (Dancer in the Dark, Lilya 4-Ever, etc.). I love films with unhappy endings. I’m trying to find a way to stress that my problems with The Dark Knight are not that it focuses on those troubling, grandiose themes of a world on the brink of collapse. Collapse away, world! My problems have to do with the filmmaking itself. As in, the movie that Christopher Nolan made doesn’t actually address amorality and corruption. To do that, you must establish, with some form of authenticity, a world in which these grand concepts can be challenged, tested, and perhaps defeated. The murkiness inherent in his film has nothing to do with murky characters existing in murky times. It has to do with murky moviemaking.
I wonder how many times the Nolan Brothers patted themselves on the back proudly while writing this script (”That was clever, mate!” “Thanks, mate!”). But here’s the thing. They didn’t write a script. At least in the sense of “let’s sit down and write a movie script.” It’s more in the sense of “let’s meet once a week for two hours and at the end of a few months we’ll have one hundred fifty pages written and then we’ll shoot that!” Because the film is so long, the obvious pattern reveals itself all too clearly—and, by the ninety-minute mark (out of one hundred fifty)—all too painfully: music drops out or fades to the background to allow for characters to have a conversation, at which point, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s emotion-tugging score resumes to pull us towards the next action sequence, which consists of lots of cross-cutting between situations that don’t have anything to do with one another, and once that’s finished the score backs off and we’re back to some more dialogue. Then one big fireworks finale and the credits roll. That about does it.
Throughout the film, there were many moments when I had absolutely no idea what was going on. And then it hit me. This is the type of movie where lack of actual grounding passes for heightened intellectualism. For viewers, they always feel like they’re playing catch up, and when they do get enough of a handle on what is happening to realize it, they feel doubly excited, because they’re smart enough to play along with this fast-paced, hyper-smart storytelling! But I thought you critics would understand that this isn’t hyper-smart storytelling. It’s lazy writing that is only concerned with propelling itself to the next action sequence, or, God forbid, next speech. Or, to put it another way: there is nothing to latch onto whatsoever. How is one supposed to care about a world that has lost its morality when the world isn’t even somewhat fully formed? The Dark Knight is a collection of superficially dazzling set pieces. It isn’t a movie. This distinction is Nolan’s biggest problem, and it is what aligns him with torture porn: he wants to pummel us into submission with violence and hopelessness and make us feel disturbed and worried, but he doesn’t want to actually justify his actions or give us a reason to care. As I said, there is a way to tackle these themes without being ‘happy’ or ‘hopeful’—ever heard of No Country For Old Men? But compare these two films and see for yourself which feels real and believable and realistic and which feels phony. Maybe Cormac McCarthy stole the coin toss idea from the character of Two-Face, who was created many decades before. Maybe he did. So what? It’s 2008 and they’re both movies now. Watch them both and tell me which one feels more convincing.
Heath Ledger’s performance confirms that his premature passing is a cavernous loss for cinema, but the fact remains that he doesn’t do anything groundbreaking or life-changing as the Joker. Exceptional, yes? Riveting, yes? The best part of the movie? Yes. Is that good enough? Yes. But is it better than that? No. For my money, Cillian Murphy’s performance in Batman Begins was more original and three-dimensional and is the most interesting Batman villain yet (that he appears in The Dark Knight as a wink-wink/nudge-nudge cameo seemed like another gratuitous gesture by Nolan that served no actual purpose other than to remind us that there was another Batman movie a few years ago, but I’m pretty sure we remembered that already). Ledger swings for the fence and he lands almost always, but aside from a few flickering moments of genuine depth, it’s still firmly rooted in Shtickville.
That brings up another point. I saw this movie less than twelve hours ago and I already forget, which is saying something, but I think it’s in the later hospital scene with Harvey Dent-turned-Two-Face when the Joker gives his profound speech about how if a gang-banger or a hundred soldiers died, nobody cares, but if a rich white man is killed it’s the end of the world. This is the kind of horrifically easy screenwriting in which the writer thinks that if they make an allusion to current events the rest of the film attains a gravitas that makes it a metaphor for our modern world. But it doesn’t. The world in Gotham City is as unbelievable as Richard Kelly’s Los Angeles in Southland Tales. You can make Gotham City corrupt and dark and tragic, but how dare you compare your big-budget Hollywood spectacle to our real world in which actual people are dying. And to do it with one tossed off line of dialogue makes it all the more unforgivable. That moment was just as jarring and inappropriate to me as the bodies jumping off of buildings at the beginning of The Happening. Yes, I just compared The Dark Knight to The Happening, and, yes, that is as insulting as it sounds.
Towards the end, there emerges a situation so preposterous that it feels like we’ve been transported into a Michael Bay picture (I’m not condemning Michael Bay here, I’m just saying). As a bunch of other unconnected situations continue to develop around Gotham City, our devious (but funny and charming) villain has pit a shipload of prisoners against a shipload of citizens in a pulse-pounding showdown. Each boat has the chance to blow up the other boat to save its own life. This is supposed to be an epic battle of good versus evil, of man versus his inner animal, of survival versus destruction, and the way Nolan stages it, cross-cutting with other things that don’t have anything to do with that particular drama, it certainly screams of Good versus Evil, albeit in an embarrassingly broad and generic way. As these stereotypical characters fuss and fight over what to do—I especially like that they take the time to do a responsibly democratic vote by throwing ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ into a hat, how civil of them!—I felt like I was watching Titanic or Armageddon. Of course, the meanest prisoner is going to… (wait, I don’t want to spoil it for the two of you who haven’t yet seen it!)… and of course, the uptight, callous businessman is going to… (oops, there I go again!)… and of course… I mean, what do you think is going to happen? This is Nolan’s last-inning rally to restore hope and humanity to his picture (aka, the studio giving their sign-off on the script), but in the context of this outlandish “showdown at sea,” it’s laughable at best. And the fact that he’s never provided any actual stakes of good versus evil, for the entire presentation is an amorphous mess, makes it seem out of context with the past two hundred minutes that we’ve already watched. Just thinking about sitting through it again makes me want to watch Iron Man instead.
Speaking of Iron Man, I think it’s interesting that I wasn’t really wowed by that film, but comparatively speaking, Jon Favreau appears to have a far greater handle on how to make a successful and entertaining popcorn genre film than Nolan. And I can already hear you critics shouting, “But that’s the point! The Dark Knight isn’t just a popcorn movie! It’s so much more than that! Nolan is bringing complexity to the multiplexes!” But here’s the thing. No he’s not. I recognize that he’s trying to have it both ways, but from where I was sitting, his movie fell into pieces and got lost in the cracks somewhere between the two. It’s too firmly rooted in broad Hollywood characterizations for it to transcend those limitations, and it’s too esoteric/sloppy for it to be a straight-up thrill ride. It’s neither.
I go to the movies to be entertained, inspired, and enlightened. Not necessarily all three at the same time, but I need a reason to feel a connection. The Dark Knight simply did not inspire me in any way, shape, or form. It does nothing that I haven’t already seen before. For those of you critics who are comparing this to a gritty drama from the 1970s, I recommend you take a break from drinking the Hollywood, hype-machine Kool-Aid before you lose all perspective and forget what truly inspiring cinema looks like (can Michael Mann direct the next Batman, please???). And, don’t worry, I realize that this is a summer action blockbuster movie. So why don’t you join me in treating it like that? Let’s just go, eat some popcorn, watch the spectacle until the closing credits roll, then forget about it by the time we wake up the next morning. I realize that in writing this I am succumbing to the hype, but the nationwide critical frenzy has spurred me into action. If so many critics weren’t treating this big-budget summer spectacle like it was actual art and making a profound statement about our troubled times, I might have been able to dismiss it as soon as I left the theater. But clearly something upsetting is occurring. The year is 2008, and the movie that has become America’s sweetheart is a sloppily made, sadistic work of torture porn that is based on a popular comic book character. I don’t know. That just doesn’t seem right to me.
Every time that I get riled up over a movie like Titanic or The Dark Knight I feel silly. For these spectacles succeed at what they set out to do. They aren’t supposed to be watched with a critical eye. They are supposed to be felt like roller coasters. Movies are subjective and I realized very long ago that my tastes are in the mini-minority. It’s just disappointing to me when I realize how much of a mini-minority I am in. But more than that, it’s even more disappointing when the individuals with whom I am in this mini-minority appear to have crossed over to the other side. It makes me feel a little less hopeful.
I make jokes about you all the time, film critics, about how ultimately irrelevant you are. But that isn’t true. You do matter. People listen to you. And that is why it’s so important that you don’t get swayed by capes and pyrotechnics and visual razzle-dazzle. You are here to celebrate and champion films that are ambitious and exciting and inspiring and that make the world a more interesting place. You are not here to give free passes to movies that have the facade of depth and feeling. I thought you knew better than that, or, at least, I hoped you did.
I would like to close by saluting the following individuals who apparently watched the same movie that I did. Go ahead and dismiss me as an uptight, stiff old curmudgeon who doesn’t know when to turn off his brain and simply sit back and enjoy the ride, but that’s the point. The Dark Knight is being celebrated for its brains, but it doesn’t have a brain. All it has is a thoughtless, empty skull. Be careful what you wish for, world. You might just get it.
— Michael Tully
(The Dark Knight is playing every minute on the minute at movie theaters, supermarkets, churches, bowling alleys, and state fairs across the country.)