Dark Knight (2008) & More
The Dark Knight (2008). Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Aaron Eckhart. 152 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Evil. We don’t hear much about it these days, at least from pulpits. Unless, of course, it is some sort of sexual something. The rest, like greed or idolatry, not so much as a peep. And prophecy, well, it’s about telling the future (RIP Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and the rest). We “know” and “trust” the Bible till it bites us in the hind parts, especially in proximity to the wallet (at least for males, the less generous of the genders). Alas, a megachurch SBC preacher said once that Donald Trump, because he’s somehow anointed, can do anything he wants, presumably from assassination to wall-building.
In any case, there is some help for approaching the nature and guises of evil from an unlikely source, namely filmdom, an enterprise which itself could be accused of exalting fantastical glorified gruesome violence and perpetual sex to ridiculous self-gratifying heights (ask the horde of “wounded warriors” suffering PTSD about the glories of combat, though recent films like Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016) and Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017) give pause to that claim).
Some evil is more than easy to recognize. The easy kind is glaring, leering slobbering lust for desolation, pain, and death, evil’s purest work, for sure. There’s no better cinematic representation of it than the Joker (Heath Ledger) in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). Cartoonish exaggeration though it be, there’s something about Nolan’s portraiture of the Joker that elicits visceral dread and loathing for his leering, slobbering, and, yes, gleeful thirst for destruction simply for the sake of destruction, a screaming, laughing nihilism on steroids, if you will.
One look, and we know all we need to know—and then some (though nominated for an Academy Award for Make-up, the film did not win: Ledger won Best Supporting Actor, given to his family after Ledger’s overdose death in 2008 at age 28).
The leer says it all, and then some, thank you very much. No one has much difficulty immediately knowing the completeness and purity of this malevolence. From this slavering lust for horror, suffering (of others, that is), and death, the soul recoils.
A far harder take (and task) comes when evil wears a smiling, even beguiling face, masking fraud and malice. Indeed, usually what makes evil especially evil is its capacity for deceit, often advertising itself as friendly, as quite average and normal, or even salvific. How else explain Hitler, Stalin, Mao or, for that matter, Putin? To wit, a case in point, examine the two villains, one in service of another, in the latest James Bond film, Spectre (2015). “C” (Tony Scott, also known for his Moriarty role in PBS’ Sherlock) is the newest thing in government intelligence services, ready to supplant all the secret agent stuff with a world-wide global surveillance system. He’s smart, smooth, sly, civilized, and controlled, just the sort of cutting-edge corporate visionary the stuffy old espionage services need. Alas, there’s the rub: in truth, he answers to Biofeld (Christoph Waltz), a smiling, debonair, handsome, endlessly polite, and sadistic tech genius who wants control of only the whole world.
Along the way, though, as much as he wants the whole world, he especially wants to defeat and kill Bond, mostly because as a boy Biofeld thought his father preferred the orphaned Bond (and, spoiler, for that he also killed his father). Forsooth, Cain and Abel never quite seem to go away.
Scarier still is the great Hollywood noir film, Chinatown (1974), starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston and directed by Roman Polanski. Jake Gittes (Nicholson, in his best performance ever) is a jaded wise-guy PI (and ex-cop) in 1930s Los Angeles, and he thinks he has seen it all and can readily detect the deepest dark of the human heart. Amid a murder investigation in which the Water Commissioner has mysteriously drowned, Gittes slowly comes upon an elaborate plot to control–amid a drought, no less–the entire water supply to southern California, which is, after all, located in a desert (the film is loosely based on the 1920s Owens Valley water war). The mastermind of that design is genial, grandfatherly Noah Cross (lost of un with that name; played wonderfully by Huston). And there lies a horror not even hard-boiled Gittes ever guessed possible, a measure of predatory evil that is not only unforeseeable and unfathomable but ultimately, because of guile, wealth, and power, undefeatable. And in the middle of it all is heroine, such as she is, Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Dunaway), thrice-over a victim, at once sister and mother to her only child.
The genteel old man fawns and seduces, as he will his daughter-granddaughter. This folksy old guy couldn’t possibly be evil, right? This Prince of darkness labors, schmoozing, beguiling, stroking, seducing, etc., telling us all what we want to hear till it is rather too late to tell light from darkness, truth from fiction, love from murder, and so on and on, again and again. That is the great pestilential human muddle for victims and bystanders alike.
Blatant, craven evil, well, it abounds still, all over the place, from slums to the Hamptons. We see what we want to see, making it all the more perilous for others and individual personal selves. All the more reason, then, to read the whole of that complex biblical sourcebook, including especially those “heroes” with clay feet–from the dodgy Abraham, preening young Joseph, petulant Moses, and especially befogged and bored, apple-of-God’s-eye David, who flips for oh-so-lovely Bathsheba and forthwith arranges a timely assignment for her husband to battle, and “golly, life sure is chancy.” And there is further hell to pay in a son’s rebellion and death. No wonder Absalom lit out. And so it goes.
Perhaps only by steadfastly gazing into the dark, inside and out, do we thirst for Light and finally recognize it for what and how it is. Darkness, after all, hurts like hell, or if not, maybe we have not seen it, at least not yet, especially when looking in the mirror, a far more painful task than admiring one’s own navel. The wiles and ways of evil know no limits. All the while, an antipode, the premise for everything, hidden in plain sight, with its own wild, wholly unforeseeable crux: “For God so loved the world”—no asterisks for exceptions therein. That is, all, every side, foe, shape, hue, and gender, trans and otherwise. And even the Yankees. Fancy that.
written by Roy Anker