Christopher Nolan's second Batman film is breathtaking. From its opening bank robbing sequence in which the Joker is introduced to the noble self-sacrifice of Batman to end the film, Nolan has crafted a daringly dark film filled with sociopathic chaos set off by the actions of Heath Ledger's sublimely villainous turn as the Joker. In between those points, there is not a wasted moment with each shot, scene, word, and gesture being absolutely necessary and deftly exectued. In a two hour and twenty minute film, that is an astonishing accomplishment in and of itself.
And maybe the film has its negligible flaws--the continuation of Bale's scrambled voice while in Batman mode, the general dullness of Rachel Dawes as a character, the slightly big leap that the viewer has to make to buy into Harvey Dent's descent--but those complaints are minor and ultimately forgettable when they have been outshone so brightly by everything that succeeds. The list of success is not a short one. The screenplay is exceptionally smart and has great emotional depth. The score is phenomenal. The opening sequence with the eventual reveal of the Joker is extraordinarily sharp and masterfully sets the tone for the entire film. All of the action is edited superbly and choreographed seamlessly. There is little to no detachment when Bale is in suit or an effect is being inserted into the film--the dive into and escape from Lao's tower fortress in Hong Kong is convincing at all times. The starkness in Wally Pfister's cinematography gives this film a feeling of realism that no other superhero film even remotely approaches.
Just as in the first film, Christian Bale imbues his Bruce Wayne/Batman with a selfless determination to thwart the evils in Gotham that makes this film work. Without his realistically innate optimism and faith in man, The Dark Knight and its predecessor fall on their faces. As much as there are other great performances in this film, without the steady grounding of Christian Bale, this film would have failed.
The relationship between Michael Caine's Alfred and Bale's Bruce Wayne is also integral to the film. In addition to providing much of the comic relief in what is otherwise a relatively dark film, the variously maternal and paternal wisdom that Alfred provides the hero with allows Wayne to make the right decisions. And to say that Caine adds a certain degree of class and pedigree to the film should go without saying.
When speaking of class, the contributions of the oft misused Morgan Freeman--I am hard-pressed to come up with more than a role or two that he has done between The Shawshank Redemption and his playing of Lucius Fox that were even remotely worthy of him--and the chameleon Gary Oldman should not be overlooked. Freeman and Caine can be so convincingly authoritative that no disbelief need ever be suspended when words spill forth from their mouths. Luckily, the screenplay is so well thought out that there is no occasion in which either should not be believed. Gary Oldman has so thoroughly disappeared into his role as Jim Gordon that you could place him in "The Wire" as one of the few doing things right and he'd be right at home.
The public faces of the quest for justice are also solid. Maggie Gyllenhaal does what she can with a mostly archetypal character, and aside from an interrogation that sticks out slightly in a tonal sense, her Rachel Dawes is one that does not irritate. For most people, that is a step up from Katie Holmes. Where Rachel Dawes is not
a particularly well-rounded character, Aaron Eckhart gets to explore a wide range of emotion as Harvey Dent, upon whom hope for Gotham hinges precariously.
Without these performances maybe the film wouldn't be great. Without the performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker, the film wouldn't come even remotely close to the heights it reaches. Ledger's unnerving turn as the ultimate "agent of chaos" absolutely places this film into the canon. While certainly helped by the hushed chaos of the often single-note score that simmers under much of his action, the physicality and speech patterns that the late Ledger chose to inject into his Joker puts anything Nicholson did in Burton's film to shame. When he crashes Dent's fund-raising party at Bruce Wayne's penthouse, he does so with such whimsical malice that you can't help but react with laughter while feeling a sincere fear. The beauty of his entire turn is that as utterly scary as his actions are there is an undeniable draw to his sociopathy. While absolutely fucked up, his pencil trick is absolutely hilarious.
It is from the Joker that much of the horror of The Dark Knight is derived. While much of the action in the film is the result of retaliation against all that Batman has helped to do, the horror that the Joker unfurls on Gotham once he's given free reign by the cowering mob bosses is what is unnerving. Everything he forces upon people is meant to undermine the human moral code. He pits man against man repeatedly, taking away the perception of choice and imposing a much more primal survival instinct in its place. The fear of a society without a moral compass is so much scarier than anything in a slasher, and the depths of amorality that the Joker tries to take Gotham City to are stark to say the least.
The citizens of Gotham are justifiably panicked in The Dark Knight, which makes Batman's belief in them ever more moving. While they certainly give him hope in the end, his sacrifice for the betterment of Gotham is undeniably affecting, and his love for man is the force that carries you out of the theater with a strange swell of bittersweet pride in the actions of a character in a movie.