It is easy to write about a bad film, but much harder to write about a good one. Pointing to areas that are lacking is easy, but when you cannot find fault in anything, what do you write about? This is, in part, a consequence of the medium: a good film cannot simply be put into words or else it would not be a good film, only a good story – or perhaps just good philosophy. The challenge is to take this thing and deconstruct it. Certainly not the entire thing either – that would take much too long – but perhaps a certain part of it. Our own subjective perceptions are already so limited when compared with the objective Truth, but even our own limitedness is too wide a scope in which to dissect a good work of art. It is with this frame of mind that I will attempt to write an analysis of one of my favorite films, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a film almost everyone can agree is good.
When I say this is one of my favorite films, I mean that it is in my top ten favorite works of cinema of all time. However, this does not mean that, if I were given the task of listing the top ten greatest films I have ever seen, it would make the list. It is a good film, a great film, but it is not as-close-to-objectively-as-I-can-be better than the ten best films I have seen – I would just choose to watch it over some of those, and also have a special affection for it because I grew up with it, saw it many times in theaters, continued to watch it every year: it is a part of my identity. So instead of being unprejudiced and fair, I might “make my own luck” in writing this review. So although I might be playing this pretty close to the chest, I will still be subverting expectations (or maybe not, who knows) in this review. When I view The Dark Knight, I do not first see characters, I see ideas – ideas given power to play out and move the audience. It is truly some of Nolan’s finest work; however, I want to look at the characters. Specifically, I want to start with Heath Ledger’s Joker.
The Joker is not an agent of chaos. Did you get that? To clarify, what I am saying is that the Joker is not an agent of chaos, as a character – he is not what he believes so strongly that he is – yet he is supposed to represent chaos to the audience, i.e. to feel chaotic. This is a tricky business, and one that is incredibly difficult to balance, but the Nolans (both Christopher and Jonathan) pull it off here in The Dark Knight. When not suspending disbelief, all of the Joker’s actions are nearly impossible feats that would take immense planning and “Scheming.” Take the first scene, the bank robbery, for example. The plan seems simple enough: five guys are going to rob a bank. Three of them hold up everyone inside the bank, the other two worry about taking out the bank’s security. Of course, if you have seen the movie (and if you have not seen it, stop reading this and go watch it, right now), you know it is a bit more complicated than that.
The bank is not just any bank, it is a mob bank. The silent alarm does not dial out to the police, but presumably to some muscle for the Gotham mob. The bank vault is wired with electricity. The bank manager is armed with a shotgun. Each of the robbers is wearing a similar, but distinct, clown mask. And then the Joker’s scheming really starts to come into focus. Each robber is meant to kill the next one after his job is done. The plan goes off perfectly, even with the bank manager shooting at them. As the two remaining men prepare to load the cash (“a relatively small amount, 68 million”), a bus that smashes through the wall at the precise moment and position to kill the second-to-last remaining criminal. Then the bus driver comes around to help load the money into the bus. After all the money has been loaded, the first bank robber (the one we see on the street waiting for the car to pull up) kills the bus driver. After a quick (but important) conversation with the dying bank manager (whom this last criminal shot), which will be discussed later, the robber reveals himself to be the Joker. Everything goes “according to plan.”
There is a lot to unpack here, and from the viewer’s perspective, it feels chaotic, yet the Joker follows an obviously well constructed plan. Each of the criminals kills the one they were intended to kill. The silent alarm and the bank vault are taken care of, despite the added security. The armed bank manager is not even a problem – nearly assisting the Joker by killing the man he is supposed to kill in this heist (and if there is one thing the Joker wants in this film, it is to get other people to kill people for him). The Joker even states “I kill the bus driver,” and he is “a man of his word” – the bus driver is the only person he kills. You could argue that he got lucky in some places, sure. The bank manager not blowing his head off when he is obviously not expecting him to be armed is one; the bus driver smashing through the wall at the exact right place to kill the criminal that confronts him on all the other guys dying, trying to kill the Joker before he kills him, is another. But luck is not necessarily chaotic, and in this case, that luck falls within this carefully constructed scheme. What is important is that it feels like chaos to the audience, and thus the Joker is allowed to represent chaos without actually being chaotic.
This is not the only occurrence where this happens either. Each of the Joker’s plans seems more elaborate than the last, though they unfold less clearly. These two things, when combined, make things appear more and more chaotic as the film goes on. His plan to kill people until Batman turns himself in is extraordinarily complex, because he is not willy-nilly killing people off the street (as Burton’s Joker might do), he is killing people of importance – the Judge hearing the case against the mob, the Police Commissioner, and Harvey Dent. He succeeds in killing two of these people despite the fact that others are trying to keep them alive, and despite the fact that those in charge had advanced warning of who those people were going to be. And take the last of his acts of terrorism: the boat scene. Each of those boats had to be rigged with explosives in such a way that they would not be noticed until it is too late – oh, and the engines had to be rigged so he could turn them off remotely. If all of this seems a little silly, like I am taking things too literally, that is because I am. The Dark Knight is not about real people, or even realistic people, it is about ideas and ideals. This does not make the characters inhuman, just larger than life, as they should be in a film – or at least in a film like this one. The point is that the Joker is not an agent of chaos, but rather an agent for it. He creates chaos without being chaotic himself. He is a hypocrite, or perhaps just entirely delusional (which he definitely is about most things anyways).
Finally, getting back to what the bank manager says to the Joker, he talks about how “Criminals in this town used to believe in things. Honor. Respect.” A kind of lawful evil. The Joker aims to take this down: not the evil, but the lawful part of it. He wants “a better class of criminal,” one that has no rules. In order to topple order, organized planning is a necessity – and the Joker is excellent at it – but it is antithetical to his cause, and ultimately is partially the cause of his inevitable downfall. At the beginning of the film, as already discussed, the Joker manages to get criminals to kill each other as part of his plan, but at the end of the film, a criminal stops his plan by doing the exact opposite: not allowing the other boat to be blown up by anyone other than the Joker. He only allows the Joker to do the morally evil act, which the Joker is willing to do, but he loathes doing it because it is not “part of the plan,” to use his own words against him. Ultimately, the Joker does create an actual agent of chaos in Harvey Dent, “Two-Face,” a truly chaotic evil/neutral, and a situation that can only be salvaged by Batman bringing himself “down to [their] level” and fully accepting the role of the chaotic good to preserve the image of Harvey’s lawful good, the hero that Gotham needed to bring order and peace to the people. This is the meaning of those last lines. Order over chaos, chaotic good only when necessary to fight chaotic evil, and sacrificing oneself for those ideals.