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Dark Knight: the Pornography of Violence

William F. Buckley once said “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling 'Stop!'”

That's how I feel taking on the gigantic Hollywood blockbuster, Dark Knight, but sometimes you have no choice but to swim against the tide. No movie I've ever seen has been so emotionally disturbing and spiritually oppressive.  Be forewarned: the following column will describe numerous scenes in detail, and give away the plot completely.  I hope I spoil it for as many people as possible.

Dark Knight is the perfect example of what one social critic called “the pornography of violence.”   Movies I respect and enjoy, like A Clockwork Orange and Braveheart, are just as violent and far more graphic, but these films selectively employ occasional violent scenes to serve a greater artistic purpose.  Dark Knight, in contrast, indulges in hour after hour of physical and psychological horror with only occasional nods to greater themes.  The violence is the essence of the movie. If evil is a foul swamp, no movie has ever plunged into it so deeply and marinated so long in the stinking muck. 

Dark Knight serves up more than its share of murder and theft, but its main emphasis is the ugliest sins of the soul.  In his masterwork, The Inferno, Italian poet Dante Alighieri describes Hell as a gigantic funnel-shaped structure comprising nine concentric circles.  The worse the sin, the deeper and closer to the center goes the sinner.  The deepest circle, the ninth, is the precinct of the traitors.

Betrayal is the coin of the realm in Dark Knight.

Betrayal is the favorite weapon of the villain – and the star – of the piece, the Joker.  This nihilistic “agent of chaos” is hell-bent on destroying the morality of Gotham City.  He recognizes no moral rules, and is devoid of mercy and decency.  The Joker wants more than money, he's after civilization itself.  He intends to rob the citizens of Gotham City of their humanity and reduce them to his own level of barbarism.

By forcing officials to betray positions of trust, and pushing citizens to betray their moral values, the Joker intends to prove that anybody can be corrupted and morality is a myth. 

The betrayals begin before you're fully settled in your seat.  A team of thieves executes a meticulously planned bank heist, but the plot contains a unique twist: as soon as each man completes his task, one of his partners guns him down.  The Joker kills off his last remaining colleague and makes off with all the loot. No honor among thieves in this story. 

Betrayal oppresses the spirit.  It's offensive to watch, but director Christopher Nolan keeps returning to it like a dog to its vomit.  A uniformed policeman, assigned as a bodyguard, turns on the man he's protecting.  An employee filches secret information from forbidden files, tries to blackmail employer Bruce Wayne, and eventually goes on television to expose the true identity of the Batman.  The movie's symbol of integrity, Mob-busting district attorney Harvey Dent, betrays his own high moral standards and commits crimes worthy of the Joker. Corrupting Dent, the embodiment of hope for Gotham City, is the Joker's greatest victory.

Nolan doesn't stop at betrayal.  Believe it or not, it gets worse – Dark Knight also drenches us in sadism.  The Joker says, “Do you want to know why I use a knife? A gun is too quick.  You can't savor all the little emotions.”

Dark Knight doesn't show us the gory details of the Joker at play with his knife (can't jeopardize that PG-13 rating!), but it wallows in the psychological side of his sadism.  The evil genius cooks up maniacal schemes to inflict emotional agony on hapless victims, and the movie shows these scenes in all their revolting detail.

In a scene choking with twisted angst, two lovers talk by phone as they watch time bombs clicking down to zero.  Batman can save either one but not both.  Each lover wants the other to be saved, and is forced unnaturally to wish for death.  The man suffers torment as Batman breaks in to rescue him, knowing his beloved (also the woman Batman loves) is about to be blown to bits.  

In the movie's climax, the Joker wires two ferries full of people with remotely detonated bombs.  Each ship has a remote control that can blow up the other ship. The Joker threatens to detonate both if one ship fails to destroy the other.  Which group will save their own lives by taking the lives of the people on the other ship? 

The most gutwrenching movie scene I've ever experienced is from Sophie's Choice, when a sadistic Nazi officer forces a mother to choose whether her son or her daughter is to die.  Sophie's Choice takes two hours to build up to the shattering climax; Dark Knight pummels its viewers with such scenes over and over again.

Dark Knight is rapidly paced, tense and exciting.  It's also visually gloomy, spiritually dark and emotionally grueling.  Does Nolan put us through this wringer for any greater purpose?    

A Clockwork Orange was shocking in its day, but its violence served the greater purpose of portraying, brilliantly, the fallen nature of man.  Braveheart showed more gore, but its handful of battle scenes illustrated graphically the courage of the Scots, who risked being butchered to win their independence. The horrifying dramatic conflict in Sophie's Choice brought home the utter depravity of the Nazis and the Holocaust.

Dark Knight showcases violence, betrayal and sadism in the name of frivolous entertainment.  The movie is morally corrupt.

Some people defend Dark Knight because it is smashing box office records.  So what? Crack cocaine is popular too, but that doesn't mean it's good for society.

Others defend Dark Knight for its “conservative” values.  It does acknowledge the difference between good and evil.  The hero stands up to the villain, subdues him in the end, and takes the blame for the district attorney's crimes in order to preserve hope in Gotham City.  The movie also sends a constructive topical message about the need to defend ourselves against terrorists.

All these points may be true, but they don't excuse Dark Knight's indulgence in the pornography of violence.  What if Hugh Hefner made a movie featuring two hours of skin and sex, but ending with the hero losing his marriage?  Would Hefner deserve credit for warning us of the dangers of adultery?

Dark Knight is rated PG-13, compelling evidence of the inadequacy of the present rating system.  This movie is a pleasure cruise through the depths of moral perversion.  It cries out for a new category: U-99, Unfit for any age. 

Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.