Saturday, July 26, 2008

Movie Review: The Dark Knight

“When the chips are down, these ‘civilized people’ will eat each other... you’ll see!”

- The Joker to Batman in The Dark Knight

Someone said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil was for good men to do nothing. It’s a catchy little truism in its way. But pith is not always the way to absolute truth; and perhaps this truism is a bit too little for its own good. For one thing, there is good found outside the course of human actions. There is also evil which is physical but not directly sourced in any being’s volition. In the face of a hurricane wildly blowing, the action of rather many good men can seem utterly futile. And while, as Christians, we say that evil cannot ever really triumph, nevertheless it seems often to carry the day. The image of a crucifix reminds us of how our platitudes fall short of expressing the truly complex relations between the primordial forces of life and death, growth and decay, reason and madness. We know that good men’s actions will miss the mark (the literal meaning of the Greek word for sin, hamartia). Roads paved with good intentions will go askew. And what if the only way to do good seems to be allowing some evil to take place? What if evil promises to go away just so long as good men do nothing?

No film in recent years has grappled with philosophical questions as deep as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The problem of evil; the inherent flaw in disguise and deception; the frailty of human resolve; the difficulties of ends/means morality; all of these questions and more are brought to the screen in a truly epic fashion. Dazzling performances and a wily script that leaves one breathless make the film worthy and enjoyable in themselves. But some ponderous questions are thrown into the ring for viewers to wrestle; and this action continues after the closing credits roll. As the Joker says in a final scene to Batman: “This is what happens when an unstoppable force encounters an immovable object.... You and I are going to go on doing this forever.” The eternal game of chess continues between good and evil. The pieces stand poised on the board in the winning strategy, and victory has already been announced. But the rules are broken. Good simply holds its position, and the clock is allowed to run on while the dark king shifts back and forth in his old ruinous rut, futilely trying to keep his cracked crown straight on his head.

A working premise of The Dark Knight is that Evil is chaotic and destructive and so hard to deal with because it lacks rules. Good, on the other hand, is a knight encumbered by the rules of chivalry as much as by heavy armour: its will to preserve order as well as its own self are limitations which Evil does not know.

I say this is a working premise of the film, but I do not say that Nolan accepts the premise as true. I certainly do not accept it myself. The reason this premise is false is the same weakness of Emerson’s platitude: it is not expansive enough. And while most of the questions raised in the film are left open, and much ambivalence prevails, I think Nolan effectively demonstrates the short-sightedness of this presumption about the nature of Good and Evil.

In The Dark Knight the Joker wants to introduce madness and chaos and recklessness into the workings of the city. He is always on top throughout the movie because he abides by these same rules himself. He isn’t afraid to die. At one point, he laughingly taunts Batman as he is being beaten to a pulp: “You have nothing you can threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength!” Later, he hands a gun to Harvey Dent and presses the muzzle against his own forehead, tempting fate. He is willing to have his own life taken for the sowing of evil.

But the Joker does have a rule. Or, I should say, a presumption. That presumption is that annihilation is a force solely within his control. He presumes that, by getting the forces of Good to turn to ruin and destruction, he will have won them over to his own side. His great mistake, though, is the fatal mistake of Evil from all time: namely, that there is one type of destruction which will not work to Evil’s end – and that is sacrifice.

“Unless a seed fall to the ground and die....” The ironic lack of self-interest with which the Joker sows the seeds of chaos and fear is but a cheap imitation, an aping perversion of a mysterious mechanism which first belonged to Good. The Joker’s words, in spite of his own lack of understanding, illustrate this lack of independence of Evil from Good: “I don’t want to kill you,” he says to Batman. “What would I do without you? You complete me!”

Pride goes before the Fall. Evil puffs itself up in pride to the point that it fails to distinguish Good as the genuine article from which it cheaply derives. Evil is really only an absence, a non-entity; but its central lie and first working principle is a denial of this fact. Like the shuffling king on the chessboard, agents of Evil fail to recognize the set pattern which Good has dominated. All the moves are covered, but Evil deludes itself into thinking there’s a way out.

For the Joker, the ultimate move is a two-part strategy: a “social experiment” involving the passengers of two ferries facing the dilemma of destroying or being destroyed; and the undoing of Harvey Dent, upon whom the hopes of Gotham rests. Both plans seem flawless because of the Joker’s presumed monopoly on the force of destruction. But both plans are held in check by Good’s oldest and most powerful move: sacrifice. Sacrifice, which cuts to the heart of Evil by drawing life from death, light from darkness. The people on the ferries foil the Joker’s plans by their willingness to be sacrificed. Batman foils the Joker’s plans by his willingness to be a hated outlaw.

When all is said and done, there are many ethical questions and philosophical debates looming large when the Dark Knight rides off in the moonlight. Are lies justified when they protect people? Is violating personal liberties justified at any time, and if so, under what circumstances? These and a multitude of other talking points make this a movie which will endure. But in the heart of this film is a colossal truth shining through the gloom and the dark, a glint from a night-sentry’s armour. That truth is not easily stated. But it’s as simply and mathematically true as the scenario of the chessboard. The White King has sacrificed Himself; by His decisive move, His armies have conquered. His Knights hold the Dark power in check; and however long the clock ticks in the interim, the matter is already decided. The Dark King may shuffle around with all of the appearances of freedom, but this is merely an illusion and a farce. All of the squares have been covered, and there is no dark space in which Evil cannot ultimately be pursued by Good.


  1. I love your review. However, if I may add a tidbit:

    I think one of the most poignant unspoken points of this film was evil's deleterious effects on the human psyche, corrupting and pushing the practicioner toward madness. Evil is intrinsically opposed to all reason, sense and order.

    Of course, in a real world situation the Joker would probably have long ago been slain, his purpose in the film is iconic: as one reviewer put it, he is evil itself, not merely a man seeking a lesser good illictly.

    Bruce Wayne and the city of Gotham are pushed to the precipice of anarchy by the influence of the Joker, but it is their fundamental belief in justice that keeps them all alive and functioning - they have a basic consensio communis which binds them together in civic peace and order.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said the one thing evil cannot perform is a sacrifice. An immolation is only possible for a host; evil has no such substance to offer up, nor a cause to direct its riotous passion. It has not fuel for fire - it is fire.

    As T.S. Eliot once said, "We only live, only suspire, consumed by either fire or fire." Either that is the fire of love, or the fire of evil. Both consume, but only one makes a sacrifice.

  2. Is it irony?

    I gave a reflection last night at a Scripture study on the readings from this past Sunday. Romans 8:28 was my main focus: "All things work for good for those who love God..." and I used the Catechism (para. 309, I think) which quotes here Julian of Norwich in connection with this idea: "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

    I expressed that I really dig this idea of drawing good from evil as it's been expressed in our Tradition, particularly in this quote. I toyed around with introducing the source by which I first became acquainted with this quote: T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding. I opted not, and here the next day you quote the very same section of the very same poem as if to condemn me. Hmph!

    Awesome poem, though, and really capturing the sort of idea that I tried to get at in my review. Evil thinks it owns destruction, but when Christian theology takes this and turns it inside out ("for when I am weak, then I am strong") evil loses its ace in the hole.


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