In his dazzling, Oscar winning performance as the Joker, the late Heath Ledger tells the wounded Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) that he is not a villain with elaborate, pre-established schemes but, rather, “an agent of chaos.” This line of dialogue describes the central formal and organizational thesis that Christopher Nolan brings to the second film in his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight (2008). Essentially, the film is defined by narrative and spatial disorder that is, to borrow from film studies guru David Bordwell, motivated by the anarchic personality of the Joker.
This quality of the film is perhaps most notable during the Harvey Dent fundraiser sequence. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) throws the fundraiser for Dent, who has decided to (legally) take on Gotham City’s criminal underworld with the help of Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman). Wayne views Dent as the city’s White Knight, a figure of upstanding morality who will eventually render the existence of Wayne’s cloaked Dark Knight obsolete. Wayne hopes for this outcome, as it will allow him to finally embrace Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the woman that he and Dent both love. Obviously, Wayne’s motives for throwing the fundraiser are more than a little complex. Hoping to throw Dent’s investigation off-course, the Joker crashes the fundraiser in order to kill him, battles Batman, and throws the object of the Dark Knight’s affection out the window.
The way in which Nolan films this sequence is telling. The camera continually spins around the Joker as he questions the party-goers about the whereabouts of Harvey Dent. The score, masterfully composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, builds the suspense as the circling camera begins to tighten around the Clown Prince of Crime. Then . . . Batman appears. Well, he doesn’t quite appear. He seemingly teleports into the space, as both the revolving camera—which surveys the entire ballroom—and the party-goers keep his remarkable presence a complete secret. As noted above, the Joker then fights Batman and throws Rachel out the window. The formal attributes of the next sequence are telling: Nolan shows us Batman jumping out the window, catching Rachel, and successfully saving both of their lives before cutting to another entirely different (in terms of space and time) scene.
Due to the formal and emotional momentum that Batman’s rescue has, most viewers fail to realize the huge narrative gap Nolan has created. What happened to the Joker and the rich folks at the party? In Batman Begins (2005), Nolan establishes a Bruce Wayne/Batman who cares enough about his rich friends that he feigns drunkeness to break up a party before the attendees can be attacked. His antics in The Dark Knight go against the nature of his character but not against the narrative character of the film, which is full of such gaps. For instance, what is the significance of the reconstructed bullet? If the Joker really is an agent of chaos, he sure seems able to set up some brain teasing scavenger hunts and plots for the yin to his yang to work through (that is, of course, if we are to assume that he is telling Dent the truth or the whole truth about the essence of his character). For instance, the kidnapping of Dent and Rachel/Joker’s escape from the Gotham Police Department relay that Clown knew he was going to get captured in his pursuit of Batman. Yet, he tells Batman that he thought the Caped Crusader might actually be Dent. Similarly, yet not linked to the Joker specifically, faking Gordon’s death begs the question as to whether he knew Dent was going to surrender as Batman, which Bruce Wayne is oblivious to.
I feel I can pick on The Dark Knight in retrospect because I admire it so much. These holes become more and more apparent to the cinephile who has watched the film more times than his or her two hands can count and they do blemish it. There are many fulfilling aspects of The Dark Knight including Ledger, the Batpod/truck chase (which, as Jim Emerson has pointed out, is also riddled with chaos), and the musical score. Yet, Nolan, for all of his brains and talent, has shown with Inception (2010) and The Dark Knight that he isn’t above cutting corners in his elaborately designed cinematic mouse traps. In Inception, Nolan established rules that he, like the Joker, ultimately decided were not sensible (for some reason, the lack of gravity on dream level one only affects level two and not level three). In The Dark Knight, he uses a character as a narrative contrivance. Essentially, the film patterned weaving of cause and effect does not have to make sense because the major events have been set in motion by a criminal mastermind who oscillates between elaborate planning and off-the-cuff chaos. This works to a point before everything gets muddled, just like the moral line between the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime. Perhaps that’s Nolan point; perhaps it is just shaggy storytelling.