Posted in Film, Writing

Watching Like a Writer: The Dark Knight

Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review: It was the movie of the year. But to an even more impressive extent, The Dark Knight reinstated the power of mainstream pop entertainment. I hadn’t been that anticipatory of a major Hollywood film in years, and the movie not only met my expectations but exceeded them. It’s an extraordinary piece of film-making that continues all these years later to stand high as one of the finest Hollywood blockbusters of the twenty-first century.

Where to even begin with the praise? While some may go with the terrific ensemble group of actors, topped with the towering power that is Heath Ledger’s final full performance, or the superb direction by Christopher Nolan, my praise starts with the script. Before the first camera had rolled film, all the boys and girls walking on set of this movie had a massively epic screenplay to start with. Batman Begins is a solid effort, but it is the baby-steps-prologue to Nolan’s eventual Batman trilogy. The script delivers on every level; it’s fast-paced, ambitious, and absorbing.

Batman Begins wasn’t my favorite film of 2005. In fact it wasn’t even in my top twenty. I found the set-up too long, Katie Holmes miscast, and the villains rather bland, but little did I know how important that film would be to the future of the Nolan Batman franchise. Three years later we got the Batman masterpiece fans had been waiting for. Everything wrong with Batman Begins was fixed in The Dark Knight (even the replacement of Holmes!) and was improved upon in such a way that the film has to qualify as one of the best sequels ever made.

Christopher Nolan did everything right with the franchise, and he has shown since his brilliant breakthrough Memento that he has a knack for casting. Most of the great actors from Batman Begins returned, and Christian Bale proved again he was up for the task of portraying the increasingly brooding Bruce Wayne and the increasingly physical Batman. Maggie Gyllenhaal played the still-semi-thankless role of Rachel Dawes, but at least her character marked a major turning point in the franchise. Aaron Eckhart, so great in everything he does, including the recent Sully, finally got his moment to shine, playing both sincere and maniacal in the role of Harvey Dent.

But the star of the show is Heath Ledger, and this film not only marked his most inventive performance, but it also proved the kind of jaw-dropping talent he had just begun to showcase. The Dark Knight is Ledger’s Rebel Without a Cause, that rare occurrence where an actor’s posthumous role made him more famous than he ever was when he was alive. After Ledger died, Nolan could’ve done a lot of things to screw up his performance and/or the movie, but he wisely kept the Joker on-screen in fits and starts, the perfect amount of time. Having the character in the film only occasionally allowed for his moments to truly count.

I always enjoyed Ledger’s work, particularly in the under-rated A Knight’s Tale and in his brief role in Monster’s Ball, but it was in Brokeback Mountain that he first showed the making of an incredible actor. I was skeptical of that movie. As a still in-the-closet gay man who hadn’t seen a serious love story between two men on a mainstream movie screen, I hoped for the best. It’s a beautiful film that has stuck with me for the most part because of Ledger’s performance. I love love love that we have his quiet, nuanced, heartbreaking performance in Brokeback Mountain and his loud, manic, mesmerizing take on the Joker in The Dark Knight. Before his death, Ledger got a chance to prove he was capable of anything a talented director could throw his way. We’ll never see another performer quite like him again, and we’ll never see a performance like the one he delivered in the brilliant modern classic, The Dark Knight.

Watching Like a Writer: An example of a great opening hook is in The Dark Knight. This film could start any number of ways. Bruce Wayne waking from a bad dream. Batman answering the call to duty. Instead, we open with an extended robbery scene that has nothing to do with the protagonist. Instead, it has everything to do with The Joker, and his desire for chaos. In a few short minutes, the tone of the film has been set, and the antagonist has been established. This is one strategy to hook your reader. Open with the threat. Start the conflict as soon as possible.

Exercise! Examine your short story or novel, and think about the opening scene. Is this the right place to start your story? Is it possible to start later, closer to the central conflict? And is there a hook on that first page to draw in the reader? What is it?

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