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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On Monday night, I had perhaps one of the most unique moviegoing experiences of my life.

The Dark Knight is a film that even after its hyper-real 2005 predecessor, Batman Begins, immerses you in a reality that in many ways - in too many ways - resembles what you and I experience every day. A man who is driven to make a difference is confronted with his mirrored sibling, a cursed individual who seeks only to spread pain, hurt and chaos like a sickness. But he does it with a smile, so there's an element of detachment that we normally experience when we see something so outlandish that our heart calms, realizing that it can only exist in the realm of fiction, Heath Ledger's Joker may be a tour de force, a true monster covered in haphazard white makeup, lipstick and dime-store hair dye. But the real issue that The Dark Knight isn't how one hides oneself, but how tragedy and events outside your control reveal who you really are.

The central character in this film isn't even Batman or his alter ego, Bruce Wayne. It is Harvey Dent, the newly elected district attorney of Gotham City.

Dent is an idealist, but one that is filled with courageous stuff. He's more of a military leader than a ivy-covered hotshot lawyer, more Caesar than Atticus Finch even as he leads the city's moral revolution. He seems to be scared of no one, and is more comfortable facing the barrel of a mobster's gun than wooing wealthy Gothamites at a fundraiser. This is quite obviously a cat with a hell of a dark side, and the manner in which it is revealed is the key to the entire picture's success. The Dark Knight is a cautionary tale for the 21st century, a time in which people's worst natures are more liberated than ever.

Think about it. When was the last time you honked angrily at a perceived slight from your neighbor in traffic? Maybe gave him the finger, or shouted loudly at him or her with colorful language that they couldn't hear from the safety of your air-conditioned automobile? What satisfaction we gain has little to do with the other person who supposedly wronged us. It's all about the release of uncontrolled id, all in the service of making ourselves feel better. We have ideas of right and wrong, but we're willing to do wrong in order to service that right. That is the essence of Harvey Dent.

And when he finally releases that id, the entire picture becomes something very different. And very unsettling.

A major theme of the film is whether or not someone must operate within the rules in order to inspire and enact positive change. The Joker operates completely outside of the rules with great success, and it frustrates both Dent and the Batman, two men who are beholden to rules (Dent to the law, Batman to his own decree never to kill). The film asks you several uncomfortable questions, and it is difficult to answer them quickly. I don't have my answer.

A very interesting thing occurred after the film's screening. My lady and I, along with two of our friends, shoehorned ourselves into the elevator with at least 10 others who'd just seen the movie. Normally, after a summer blockbuster, you hear all kinds of chatter - people talking about their favorite scene, plot holes, special effects, the best fight scene.

But no one said a word.

I felt like I was in the New York subway during evening rush hour, a time in which people appear worn down by life and stare blankly forward when they're not burying their eyes in their newspapers. The elevator was filled with folks that seemed to be simply exhausted, either from the scope of the adventure they'd just witnessed or due to the fact that a movie about a man dressing up like a bat unexpectedly caused them to examine their own worst impulses.

It's a jarring thing, really. Rarely does a motion picture - especially one you make a point to watch on IMAX - cause you to look inward at yourself while you're watching it. Examining your own demons while you're watching three men so convincingly depict their characters' own is quite an experience, and I welcome you all to it. (Judging by the record-breaking numbers, you already have.) You may be surprised by the person you find in the mirror when you're done.


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