Last night I watched The Dark Knight with my 16 year old son. He had seen it in the movies a year ago and raved about it ever since and wanted to watch it with me. So we did.
So this is a film that has a PG-13 rating. By comparison, The Matrix is rated R. About half way through I asked Gabriel why he thought this was PG-13. And he gave a sensible answer – so that children would be able to see it and then the film makers would make more money than with an R rated film. After all, there is no blood shed or foul language. There is no nudity and what little romance is in it is very tame. There are no references to drugs though you know what the baddies do for a living. And so it gets PG-13.
What disturbs me deeply is that though I think (I hope!) most people are sensible enough to know that this is not a film for young children, many will think it must be ok for children of say 8 or 9 and up. It is, after all, about a super-hero. It's just a comic strip come alive – or is it.
This film is one of the darkest films I think I have ever seen. Its pace is relentless. Whereas say Lord of the Rings is also viscerally relentless, the story line and the characters are so well developed and the scope so grand that one does have some time to step back and take a breath. Pirates of the Caribbean is also very fast-paced, even somewhat manic. But there is so much humor that again, one can breath. There is no humor, no beautiful and intricate plot or character development, no room at all to breath in The Dark Knight. It is horror all the way through – though some of it, like the guy with the burnt face is pretty hokey, nevertheless, there is no pause. There's a vague attempt for some light relief with a character who wants to unmask Batman – but that goes wrong and he ends up in danger too. Michael Cain, shuffling amiably through the film dishing out little homilies could also be considered light relief, but only if one is desperate!
In the other films I just mentioned, because there is some room to breath, one can reflect on the development of the story in, for instance, LOTR and consider the portrayal of good and of evil. In Pirates, one suspends disbelief and just has a fun time accompanying the characters through their implausible plot. From the very roots of drama, playwrites have always known the power and importance of letting the audience breathe: once one has gone through the catharsis of a Greek drama, for instance, the audience was then given some relief by a short comedy before the next drama was unveiled. And of course Shakespeare used this device in his plays where there are always humorous characters who allow the audience to have a bit of a rest before the drama carries on in the next scene. These are art forms where the human beings watching and participating inwardly are respected and where the art lies in the attempt to educate and enlighten – as well as to entertain. What is the purpose of a film such as The Dark Knight one must ask oneself. There is no education as the content is utterly shallow. It is not to enlighten as there is very little intelligence in it. And entertainment? We surpass the Romans in their brutality if this is what we do for entertainment. And the games at the Colosseum were not meant for children.
Here, in The Dark Knight, there is no humor, no room to breathe. Watching this film is like experiencing an assault. The evil character is utterly evil and there is no room for redemption. There is a scene where he first tells a little about himself and one thinks ah, I can gain a little insight here. I can breath. But as the story unfolds, we see that he makes up little biographical sketches for himself as it suits him. There is no human being behind the mask. There is no room for the audience to breathe or be human either as there is no room for compassion or understanding. While Lord of the Rings focuses on the grand universal themes of good and evil and gives our souls something to consider and while Pirates of the Caribbean makes no pretenses toward any serious content (except vague references to the corruption of the East India Trading company and other unsavory aspects of the British Empire), this film takes us right into the heart of good and evil – and leaves us stranded. In the worst kind of "post modern" nihilism, this film sets up questions of good and evil and then leaves us drowning in a morass of grayness and relativism. All we are left with is the horror of the Joker.
Heath Ledger was universally acclaimed for his portrayal of the Joker – and I too believe that he was phenomenal. But the question that is not asked is why did the director and the producer feel that Ledger's Joker was acceptable for a film geared toward children? He is responsible for some of the worst scenes of violence I have ever seen in a film – horrible not because of their gore or emotional intensity, but because of their absence of gore, absence of emotions and absence of comment. There are scenes of beatings – but no blood. Knives are flashed right next to vulnerable necks and terrified eyes – no blood but Ledger's calm, collected and absolutely mesmerizing Joker. The most horrific things are built up – and then the camera, ever aware of that much valued PG rating, goes off to the next scene before we actually see anything.
So the effect unfolds in us – in children watching. Three hoods watch their leader impersonally dispatched, are given a sharpened stick between the three of them and then told only the winner will live. Exit. A man is placed on top of a mountain of money and the Joker sets it on fire – he does not even refer to the man as he is busy threatening another gangster. We do not see what happens – we do not even hear screams – we are left with the image of a man tied to a chair on top of a mountain of burning money. One of the heroes of the film is blown up: we do not see it, but her words are cut off and we see the explosion. We have had an opportunity to sympathize with her, like her, feel terror as the scene builds and then – wham! Cut to next scene, both to avoid anything which would endanger that PG rating and also, I must think, to cut us horrifically to the quick.
This avoidance is what gets this movie a PG-13 rating. This film is filled with the most gratuitous and menacing violence – and it all centers around Heath Ledger's amazing performance. His skill at creating an absolutely unimaginably evil character is terrifying to witness. His character even says there is nothing personal in what he does – there is no particular motive, no anger, nothing to make him human. We, the audience, have the most shocking experience of all – evil is inserted into our imaginations and we are left reeling, having to deal with the unthinkable because of the power of his character. We can't just shut our eyes and not look – because the menace of his words, face, tone and manner have gone right inside of us and touched what is untouchable. We are sucked right in and then told that it doesn't actually matter if it us or the next guy. Our hearts are left unmoved and we have no opportunity to go through any sort of healing upheaval – certainly nothing like the cathartic experience that the Ancient Greeks thought was so healing for audiences.
This is a film that people will take their children to or let youngsters of say 10 or 12 watch at a sleepover. Had I not seen it, I might have done so too.
I was glad to watch this with my son, not only because I now have a deeper appreciation for the depths of depravity (and I do not use that word lightly) of the film industry, that they can think that such a film is fit to feed our childr
en (and many would have no idea what I am talking about – how sad it is that people can become so numb). So I said to Gabriel after the film, "At what point does it become OK to be indifferent to violence and horror?" He shrugged….then nodded. We talked for quite a while about "getting used to acts of violence" and what the film would have been like if during the beatings there had been blood and so on. We talked a lot about the Joker and about how brilliant Heath Ledger was. What does it mean to have a character who has no possibility of moral redemption? How does that play into the feeble attempts in the film to deal with issues such as when can one justify acts of aggression against aggressors; when is torture justifiable; is it possible to value one human life over another, regardless of the acts done by those individuals. All really important issues – but in a film that cannot decide whether it is a serious film about morals or a Bruce Willis-type mindless action film, one is just left with vague and confusing images and thoughts – and with the utterly terrifying clarity of the horror of the central figure, the Joker.
See the film with your older teens and dicuss it with them – they should be aware of what is actually taking place in films like this and in our society. But anyone younger – beware.
Posted on July 25, 2009 in Children and Society