It’s Nolan Theme Week here at Scriptshadow and while I know some of you will bicker about the interruption of our stream of unproduced screenplay reviews, if you’re a Nolan fan, you should enjoy the change of pace. You see, I’ve been wanting to break down Christopher Nolan’s films for awhile now. The man is the only director working who can consistently offer Hollywood thrills in a cerebral package. His unique brand of high-brow/high-concept entertainment has resulted in an unheard of 1.8 billion dollar haul for his last two films. Clearly, this man is doing something right. So I wanted to take a deeper look into his movies, specifically the story-structure, cast of characters, and narrative choices, and see if we can’t discover what Nolan is doing on the writing end that makes these films so popular, and in turn use that knowledge to improve our own writing.
Now these are script-as-film reviews. That means we’ll be addressing only the story/screenplay elements that can be seen onscreen, not the words on the page. If you have a fundamental problem with this, feel free to e-mail me and we can discuss it. But there will be no debate about it in the comments section.
I have to say I’m happy Roger chose to review The Dark Knight. I have watched this movie three times now and I’m still not entirely sure what happens. I’d probably need 5000 words to bring all my thoughts together, and even then they’d be an in-cohesive mess. But watching five Nolan films back to back last week, I realized that that’s probably exactly what Nolan wants, and one of the keys to his success. Shit, I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s not my turn yet. Here’s Roger with his review of The Dark Knight!
Genre: Crime/Drama/Superhero Movie
Premise: Batman, Gordon and Harvey Dent are forced to deal with the chaos unleashed by an anarchist mastermind known only as the Joker, as it drives each of them to their limits.
About: Sequel to Warner Bros. and Nolan’s Batman Begins
. Starred Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, and Heath Ledger and set numerous box office records and received 8 Academy Award Nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for Ledger’s performance.
Writer: Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan; Story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer
I really don’t know what you want me to say, here, because I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a film reviewer. I’m a story admirer, and I suppose, analyst, but all that’s more of a second nature to my first inclination, which is to create.
I like putting stories together; I like taking other people’s stories apart.
So, in that spirit, when Carson told me that we would be reviewing Christopher Nolan movies, I thought, on my end at least, the only thing that wouldn’t make you readers groan would be to deconstruct The Dark Knight to the best of my abilities
(without getting too long-winded, because, trust me, I could go on forever about this script as Pure Plot Monstrosity).
What are some facts about The Dark Knight that I may not know about, Rog?
It’s the 7th Highest-Grossing Film of All Time.
It’s one of only three films to have earned more than $500 million at the North American box office. (The other two being James Cameron flicks, and I’ll let you guess which ones.)
It’s probably the first Superhero Movie that successfully utilizes a two-villain storyline. (Can you think of another that is so well-balanced?)
Christopher Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, supposedly received no notes from Warner Brothers after they wrote the screenplay.
I need a grasp of your cinema palette, Rog. What do you think of Christopher Nolan?
To use a friend’s phrase, he’s a Story Engineer that creates narratives where nothing happens because of accident. When it comes to making choices, you get the sense that everything has been turned over and over in the man’s mind like a rock in a lapidary and that he’s considered all the alternatives. One suspects that everything is unfolding exactly as planned and that the emotions the audience is feeling at a particular moment were foreseen in the creator’s mind when he was planning the blueprints. Ironically, I think a by-product of this calculated nature is a sense of emotional detachment that skews cold, and I wonder if that’s also a case of plot machinations overpowering character sentiment.
Someone says ‘Nolan’, you say –
I suppose, that for someone in order to admire such a title, they first have to know, that when it comes to creation, plot is a real motherfucker.
Plot is that frame you’re hanging your story from, and even if you’re creating a self-described tone poem with so-called zero plot, you’re still trying to create a series of events (A and a B and a C) that an audience can follow without totally violating their suspension of disbelief. From quests to whodunits to sprawling crime sagas inhabited by multiple characters, all with different goals and the complex plans to achieve those goals (which The Dark Knight is), creating a plot that works is a true achievement.
And, Christopher Nolan is a master with plot, and he never seems satisfied with just utilizing one that simply unfolds linearly. He uses multiple threads and weaves a complex plot tapestry with a texture that is known for having plenty of twists. From creating a puzzle box mystery narrative with The Prestige to sustaining five separate suspense and action sequences simultaneously for over an hour in Inception, it’s hard to deny that the cerebral quality of Nolan’s work can be traced to the diabolically designed plots.
And, man, The Dark Knight is no exception.
It’s a Plot Beast.
What’s the plot, Rog?
I’m going to assume you guys have seen the movie. But, quickly, to refresh your memory, the story follows three protagonists, Batman, D.A. Harvey Dent, and Police Lt. Gordon (a hero who falls, a hero transformed into a villain, and a hero that is promoted) as they try to destroy all organized crime in Gotham City, only to create an environment for a new breed of criminal, The Joker, to waltz in and assume control of the city through fear and anarchy, which manifests through acts of terrorism against the citizens and public officials, creating complicated moral dilemmas for the heroes.
What’s interesting about the film is that it’s a Superhero Movie that’s played straight and as realistically as possible while at the same time retaining the element of fantasy, action and spectacle that the comic book genre is known for. In fact, it’s a Superhero Movie that is not only visionary (which is expected these days), but it’s about the fall of a hero rather than his victory. It’s a bleak, noir-esque crime saga that is both cerebrally challenging and morally sophisticated. Gotham City seems to be a character unto itself, with a palpable social strata whose soul is also represented by two symbols (The Dark Knight, The White Knight). Not only is it the best conceived and executed of the genre, it’s the most financially successful.
It’s also notable for the late Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker.
The Joker is so unhinged, a loose cannon firing loudly on a stage where everything is so tightly controlled by the director. Heath Ledger’s Mephistophelean performance burns in the foreground of the cold color palette like he’s the only stringless wild card in a marionette troupe whose every move and mannerism is only a reflection of the volition of the puppet master. This backdrop is the perfect home for the agent of chaos to thrive.
Structurally, we want to know what makes the screenplay work. Watching the movie unspool on screen, it’s a bit exhausting. It’s way over two hours long and the screenplay clocks in around 140 pages. Let’s take a closer look at the dense blueprints…
…The Dark Knight expands the traditional four-act dramatic structure (if you look at Act 2 as two different Acts) and crams it with heist sequences, action sequences, caper sequences, detective sequences, suspense sequences, chase sequences and even a Bridge (which feels like a mini-act unto itself) between Act 3 and Act 4. The logic in most of the sequences is pretty sturdy, and while they all certainly entertain, there are only a few instances where the devices (cell phone technology, the retrieving of fingerprints off a bullet in a brick) are stretched and call for a willful and aware suspension of disbelief. The marvel is that these complex plot sequences work in tandem to not only entertain, but to put the spotlight on the pretty serious human drama that’s unfolding between all of our players. Hell, in an ordinary spec script, the events from one of these set-pieces would be the climax to the entire movie.
What happens in the 1st Act?
Before we get a primer on the current state of Gotham City, we are introduced to the villain that’s going to attempt to burn the city to the ground and destroy the souls of its triumvirate of guardians. It starts out with a six minute heist sequence that introduces us to The Joker, a man who not only kills all the other crooks he hired for the job, but who is also crazy enough to rob from the mob. We’re unclear of his origin and motivation, but as the film progresses, we learn that he doesn’t want to kill Batman, he would rather make the vigilante unmask himself and create a fiasco. Further in, we also learn that he doesn’t really have a goal in mind, other than to create an environment of ever-burning chaos. He wants to play a game that never ends.
Batman’s vigilantism has upset the criminal ecosystem, and all the crime lords are not only afraid to peddle their wares on the streets, they’re also paranoid that the law is going to break up their operations. Which is true, as Lt. Gordon wants to lead a dragnet to search all the banks that may be affiliated with the syndicates. Gordon and Batman are helping each other out on this front, and it appears they also have an ally in Harvey Dent, the heroic D.A. who punches out a mob guy while on the witness stand when he tries to shoot him.
Batman’s alter ego, Wayne, has been keeping tabs on Dent, who is dating the love of his life, Rachel. Although Wayne still has feelings for Rachel, he knows that as long as Gotham needs Batman, he can’t be with her. Interestingly, he sees an opportunity to retire the cowl when he learns more about Dent. While Batman is The Dark Knight, a symbol that does right while working outside of the system, he realizes that Dent can accomplish everything he’s dedicated his life to, but he can do so while operating inside of the system.
Dent can be The White Knight.
And, as such, Wayne will be able to put Batman aside and finally marry Rachel. So, accordingly, he decides to throw a fundraiser for Dent.
Meanwhile, The Joker tries to convince the crime lords of Gotham to pay him to kill Batman. They scoff at him, and decide to store their money with a Hong Kong banker named Lau. It’s even more complicated because Lau has been trying to negotiate a merger with Wayne Enterprises, but Wayne has only been humoring Lau to get a look at his books.
As soon as Wayne finds out he’s dirty, and with the help of his weapons guy, Lucius Fox, plans a caper to retrieve Lau from the refuge of his Hong Kong skyscraper and comes out triumphant in pretty dramatic fashion.
So, what’s Act 2 about?
With Lau in custody, Dent comes up with this scheme to arrest every criminal in town because of the evidence Lau can supply him with, implicating them with the mob and their money. It’s a stunt that gets Dent a lot of press, but it’s only the beginning.
As the criminal underworld has the rug swept out from underneath them, The Joker makes news headlines when he starts murdering Batman wannabes, claiming that he’ll only stop when Batman shows Gotham his true identity. The shit hits the fan when he kills the judge presiding over this monumental court case and the police commissioner, with Dent next on the list.
The Joker shows up at Wayne’s fundraising party for Dent, and he manhandles Rachel then throws her out a window to see how Batman is going to react. The Joker gets all the information he needs when Batman dives out of a skyscraper window after her.
Batman gets his detective on to locate The Joker, and we’re thrust into a suspense sequence that revolves around the police commissioner’s funeral and The Joker’s assassination attempt on the Mayor. It’s another complicated set-piece, because, hey, The Joker’s a complicated guy and he’s planned all this shit out down to a T. It ends in the Joker getting away and Gordon presumably dead.
The act ends when the public cries for Batman to turn himself in to stop the Joker’s terrorism, but Dent steals his thunder and says he’s the Batman. Which plunges us not only into Dent’s plan, but Gordon’s plan (who we think is dead), and Batman’s plan (all operating separately) to lure The Joker into a trap and capture him.
What happens in Act 3?
This is where we discover that all the protagonists have some type of complicated plan to stop The Joker, only to discover that his plan trumps all of their plans. If you think about it, it’s pretty fucking ridiculous. But, hey, it’s a labyrinthine plot.
Dent’s plan: When he says he’s Batman, he’ll be arrested and transferred to county. Along the way, he expects to be attacked by The Joker. But, Batman will be there to save the day.
Gordon’s plan: Because everyone thinks he bit the bullet, no one will suspect him going undercover as a SWAT team member on the convoy. When The Joker attacks, he’ll be there to stop him.
Batman’s plan: Blow shit up in his car and batcycle and capture The Joker.
What the hell is The Joker’s plan?
Why, to let himself get captured while the dirty cops on his side capture Harvey and Rachel and take them to two separate locations. He’ll fuck with Gordon and Batman’s heads in the interrogation room, then reveal that he knows where Harvey and Rachel are but they have to choose to only save one of them.
It’s a heartbreaking moral dilemma.
Ultimately, Rachel is killed and Harvey is grotesquely scarred.
What’s this Bridge you’re talking about, Rog?
This is like a ten-minute long mini-act that is about Dent’s transformation into Two Face. It sort of plays like the set-up to the finale.
Dent tells Gordon that he’s blaming him for the death of Rachel, and that he’s going to get his revenge. Meanwhile, the mob gives all of their money to The Joker, but the joke’s on them, he sets it all on fire. Why? Because he’s fucking crazy.
The Joker then puts out a bounty on a Wayne Enterprises turncoat who is going to out Batman’s identity on television, and then he arrives at the hospital to usher Dent into his new identity as a villain. He blows up the hospital.
And the Final Act?
The Joker owns Gotham now. He’s singlehandedly closed all bridges and tunnels while Two Face goes on a killing spree against all the dirty cops that contributed to the scenario that got his fiancé killed.
The huge moral dilemma set-piece is the two ferry sequence, where The Joker orchestrates a situation for the normal citizens of Gotham to blow up a ferry containing the lawbreakers of Gotham, and vice-versa. It’s an interesting comment on vigilantism, and of course it all culminates into a battle royale where Batman has to find The Joker and fight a SWAT team and dogs. Of course, he’s able to stop The Joker, but not before realizing that The White Knight has been compromised.
Batman finds Two Face threatening to kill Gordon’s son, and after he defuses the situation, killing Dent, he realizes that they can’t reveal to the populace that their White Knight has gone to the Dark Side.
So, although he does the heroic thing and has Batman take the blame, he does it knowing that he was the one that pushed Dent into the spotlight and started the chain-reaction of his fall from grace.
I remember coming out of the theater feeling exhausted, drained, unsettled and awed…and, satisfied.
I experienced the same emotional state when I saw The Prestige for the first time, and while I felt exhausted after watching Inception, I wasn’t really satisfied. While I had the notion that it was cool cerebral spectacle, I thought the complexity of the mind heist plot and its various set-pieces and sequences lacked the planning in his other, more satisfying movies. Sure, a lot of thought surely went into it, but it all felt like a misfire to me.
Inception had too much fucking exposition in it, and it was obvious that the characters existed to service the plot, not the other way around.
Script Link: The Dark Knight
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: The Dark Knight has some sort of high-concept set-piece every ten or fifteen minutes. Interestingly enough, most movies can be broken down into eight, twelve to fifteen minute sequences. These sequences have a beginning, middle and end. Now, constructing such a sequence is a true challenge, but even in sprawling sagas like The Dark Knight, it’s still operating in a traditional structure (no matter how modern it may seem). Where does this come from? Why, the old days, when movies were divided into reels containing about ten minutes of film. The projectionist had to change each reel, and history’s screenwriters had to learn to write one sequence per reel. The narrative rhythm was defined by the physical media. Even today, we still see this pattern in modern films. But, of course, a movie like The Dark Knight would probably have twice as many reels as those older flicks.