I don't want to take exception too stringently with Keith Uhlich's angry, opinionated takedown of The Dark Knight from The House Next Door, one of my favorite daily blogosphere stops. He's entitled to his opinion, and some of the fanboy brush-offs of his review have been hilarious in their stupidity and short-sightedness. I disagree pretty intensely with most of his feelings about the film, but much of what Uhlich says is hard to argue with because it's so subjective and personal, intimately connected with his own visceral responses to the film. Do Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine spout "gloomy old man platitudes?" Does the film's dialogue possess the "solemnity and verbosity borne of a beat-down Western warrior spirit?" Is director Christopher Nolan "a high-minded con artist the Barry Lyndon of the Hollywood elite?" Is the film a case of "shallow artistry" at work? I didn't think so, but any defense of such vague, rhetorical argumentation would basically have to boil down to a game of "yes it is"/"no it isn't," so I'll leave the review's more high-flown language alone, for the most part.
I also don't think that The Dark Knight is a perfect film, and I don't want to quell debate over the film's merits. The fanboys flooding the comment threads of every negative review with variations on "you suck" do nothing for film criticism in general or the discourse about this particular film. Quite to the contrary, I think Nolan's film is complex and ambiguous, susceptible to multiple readings that include the negative ones, and I find it a worthy subject for further discussion. I hope there will be more negative reviews like Uhlich's, provided they stimulate more intelligent conversation. Consider this my own humble contribution to that discourse. I want to take exception, primarily, with one aspect of Uhlich's argument that I think is particularly off-base and deserving of greater scrutiny than the knee-jerk name-calling that flooded into the original review's comments thread. The relevant passage is quoted here:
For a movie purported to be so, well, "dark," The Dark Knight spends a more-than-noticeable amount of time turning its gaze from the horrors it perpetrates. There's an early scene where The Joker holds a mob boss at knifepoint, telling a made-up backstory as to how he got his facial scars. The buildup is suitably intense, but Nolan whiffs the follow-through by having The Joker's mouth-slitting finale occur offscreen. It's the pencil gag all over again, only rendered ineffectual, monotonous, the "now you see it, now you don't" philosophy injected ruinously into the film's aesthetic fabric."
There something, let's say, interesting about a critical perspective that simultaneously lambastes a film for being "sadistic" while also criticizing the filmmaker for not showing more onscreen violence. This contradictory criticism aligns Uhlich, ironically, with that peculiar breed of fanboys disappointed in the film's PG-13 rating, thirsting for Saw-level blood-splatter and gore. The film itself has little patience for such base urges, and the violence in the film is depicted with an economy and tact that communicates the horror of the Joker's actions while never satisfying the desire to ogle his atrocities firsthand. This isn't flinching away from horror, it's tastefulness, a quality that has long been absent from mainstream filmmaking, and a quality that Uhlich doesn't seem to miss. Conditioned on one bloody violence-porn fantasy after another, have we really come to a point where we feel compelled to criticize the rare film that depicts violence without splattering the screen with it?
In point of fact, the film never "turn[s] its gaze from the horrors it perpetrates" in any real sense. Nolan's quick cuts away from the Joker's bloody actions do nothing to dull the impact of those actions, which are brutally felt in the imagination and the intellect. In the scene mentioned in the above quote, Nolan builds up the tension to an almost unbearable point, emphasizing the feel of the knife blade in the corner of the mobster's mouth, holding this moment for an uncomfortably long amount of time, cutting away only when the Joker finally does the inevitable with a flick of his wrist. Are our imaginations so limited that we need to actually see the act in order to feel it? Judging by the reactions in the packed theater when I saw it, the moans of horror and sympathetic pain, I think Uhlich underestimates modern audiences. In fact, it may be that an old chestnut that some may have thought was outdated that seeing an act of violence is never as horrifying as imagining it still has some life in it after all. There was a time when filmmakers were praised for such restraint, for doing as much with what's not shown as with what is. In another negative review of the film from Salon, Stephanie Zacharek makes some fairly misguided comparisons between Nolan and Alfred Hitchcock, but at least she appreciates the film's tact in its treatment of violence, even while failing to understand that this is one of the few areas in which her comparison holds true.
The film's treatment of violence is given further complexity by the way that Nolan handles DA Harvey Dent's transformation into the divided Two Face. For a film that supposedly flinches away from violence, The Dark Knight addresses Two Face in a startlingly head-on manner. Dent's appearance in the second half of the film is profound evidence of the impact of violence on an individual human life. Dent's plight, given real emotional heft by both the screenplay and Aaron Eckhart's sensitive performance, is externalized in the violence done to his face, and here Nolan confronts the horror with raw physicality. This is not the cartoonish, outlandish Two Face of the original comics or, Heaven forbid, Tommy Lee Jones. The right side of Dent's face is a mess of raw, exposed muscles, bone, and nerves, making it impossible to ignore the character's origins or the violence done to him. This is not the impersonal blood and guts of Saw, but a deeply felt document of the effects of violence on both external appearance and internal persona. If Nolan had flinched away here, if he had hedged in showing the grisly violence done to Dent in order to make him become Two Face, then I could better understand Uhlich's criticisms about Nolan's supposed squeamishness.