Now here’s a city I could imagine living in: Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City, a justbarelynot Chicago. “The Dark Knight” captures Gotham City as a nightscape that surpasses the gleam and hazard of Hong Kong, a setting that makes literal the divide between wealth and poverty, of comfort and peril. It starts with the elevation of Bruce Wayne’s abode to a penthouse overlooking the Chicago River on Wacker Drive and continues through the film’s many swooping, gliding perspectives of the city by sky by dark, contrasting with the sustained chase scenes that descend to the welter of warrens of Lower Wacker Drive. Pick a metaphor, make an analogy. More allegory than simply gory, Nolan, writing with his younger brother Jonathan and with Wally Pfister again shooting, makes “The Dark Night” a story comprised less of arcs than dovetailing dualities, oppositions that hardly rise to dialectic but suggest primal symptoms: good and evil, light and dark, the moral-settled mind versus the disordered, insane one, to suggest only a few. The look is central, and Pfister’s skills echo those of Gordon Willis (“The Godfather,” most of Alan J. Pakula’s paranoiac gems) and Mark Lee Ping-Bin (“In the Mood For Love,” “The Vertical Ray Of the Sun”): Chicago stories high, insanely crisp, almost painful indelibility. You can fall from the sky, you can fall from grace, and the light is always creeping toward gloom. And, too, Bruce Wayne is an oligarch, a plutocrat, a beneficent billionaire: Gotham City is very post-Soviet. But in later complications (which I’ll only hint at), this reportedly $180 million production becomes more than brooding, kinetic brutalism, but a blunt political allegory for many choices the U.S. has made since 9/11, involving moral responsibility and thinking oneself absolved when others make choices: “In their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.” What does the Joker say? “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” There is a major subplot involving surveillance that is a direct echo of the Fourth Amendment-violating actions by telecommunications companies, which were retroactively pardoned the day after “The Dark Knight”‘s first Chicago screening. Gateman? Alluded. The temptation to act unilaterally, as a vigilante, in times of hazard? Check. “That’s too much power for one person!” Spoken aloud. The placement of the line “No one wants to get their hands dirty” is eminently suggestive of the timing of the Vice-President’s cry that it was our turn to explore “the dark side.” Heath Ledger’s Joker? Man, oh man. No backstory. No explanation. The embodiment of terror: what do you want? Fear. Ledger mingles old-fashioned Cagney-style intonations with a lovingly observed Bridgeport-type Chicago inflection. A good listener, he was. Still, the look is the second most seductive element, with Nolan’s insistence on the “practical,” that is, locations, settings and stunts that are done physically rather than through digital smearing. Gary Oldman, as Commissioner Gordon, is keenly quiet. Morgan Freeman’s skepticism is matched by Michael Caine’s doubt. Aaron Eckhart, hair much like his director’s, demonstrates the fine line between zealotry and payback. (Maggie Gyllenhaal? Present.) Brutal, yet piercing, “The Dark Knight” is a necessary fable. “You thought we could be decent men in an indecent time.” Yes. Yes, we did. 152m. Anamorphic 2.40 widescreen or widescreen/IMAX blended. (Ray Pride)
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.