The Dark Knight is full of staggering “holy shit!” moments, but the one that never fails to give me goosebumps is the centerpiece interrogation scene.
We arrive midway in the movie almost lulled into taking a breather. Christopher Nolan has just treated us to an impeccably staged chase where Batman and the Joker play cops and robbers on the grimy streets of Gotham, a sequence loaded with applause-worthy moments in and of itself. At the end of it, the Joker’s been had, Gordon’s alive and playing things close to the chest, and Batman didn’t break his rule. Everybody’s earned a halftime break, right?
The only breather we get from the high-wire tension is the space from Gordon apprehending the Joker to Gordon’s return home. And then we’re back to it at Major Crimes.
I’m gonna refer to Nolan’s script because it blows my mind how sparingly it’s written. This 5-minute scene maximizes tension from the briefest lines of dialogue and description, all within 5 pages. Once the overhead lights come on – Batman being a ninja the whole time before Gordon even stepped into the room – it is ON.
I can’t speak to what everyone else was hyped about in The Dark Knight, all I can say is that this scene alone was worth the price of admission. Christian Bale had easily become my favorite Batman at the time following Batman Begins, and the sheer mania surrounding a “Nolan-style” Joker had reached critical mass in the summer of 2008. It’s the comic book dork’s version of Ali vs. Frazier. What would it be like with Bale’s Batman and Ledger’s Joker in a room together?
Nolan’s obvious cinematic reference here is the coffee shop scene in Michael Mann’s Heat. It was the first time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro had ever been in a scene together. Two heavyweights at the height of their powers playing, well, two heavyweights at the height of their powers.
The ultimate cops and robbers saga, Heat is Nolan’s reference point throughout The Dark Knight. He even casts William Fichtner in the opening heist to play basically the same character from Mann’s film. Mann has certainly gotten the memo; Nolan moderated Heat’s 20th anniversary panel, while Mann himself is featured in this lengthy Dark Knight Trilogy retrospective. These two soft-spoken and monumental filmmakers have earned the other’s respect.
The same could be said of Pacino’s seasoned detective, Vincent Hanna, and De Niro’s career bank robber, Neil McCauley. The coffee shop scene comes on the eve of McCauley’s next big score. Hanna seemingly pulls the classic cop shakedown on McCauley, pulling him over unprompted on the highway. They each have their guns ready at the hip. Instead, Hanna offers, “whaddya say I buy you a cup of coffee?”
What follows is a series of shot and reverse shots. It’s the tried and true way of shooting a dialogue scene – two characters on opposite sides of the frame, camera over the shoulder, matching eyelines and trading verbal jabs. The two men proceed to put the other’s ideology under the microscope: Hanna’s domestic life frequently interrupted by chasing down bad guys, and McCauley’s sheer professionalism that rids him of any meaningful human connection.
“I don’t know how to do anything else,” one says, and the two titans lock eyes.
“Neither do I.”
At the onset, the scene looks like a battle of excess manliness, a boasting game of who’s more masculine. The irony, then, is that Hanna and McCauley are such lonely, lonely characters. The things that are supposed to give them meaning in their respective lives – one, a dedication to the badge, the other, the thrill of the heist – has turned them into efficient but empty pros.
The only solace Hanna can find is in the guy he’s chasing, and the only honest conversation McCauley has is with the guy he’s supposed to run away from. The scene functions as its own meet-cute. After all, they’re sitting in a coffee shop, the cinematic backdrop of many a love at first sight. Hanna and McCauley may as well be in Paris. The iconic scene ends with a mutual understanding that they each gotta do what they each gotta do.
The Dark Knight’s interrogation functions in much the same way – two characters coming to the realization that they’re destined to do this forever. Joker, of course, puts it in a much more blunt and twisted way: “You complete me.”
The similarities kinda end there. Heat’s coffee scene is calm and soothing like an ASMR video. There’s comfort in two veterans just doing their thing opposite each other, playing two characters on equal footing where you can just sit back, relax, and behold. The interrogation in The Dark Knight, however, is all about tension and spiraling out of control. You’re on your feet, on edge the whole time.
The scene is set up exactly like Heat. Shot and reverse shot, throw in reactions from Gordon and his unit looking from behind the viewing window like their own private cinema. (You knowwww somebody brought popcorn.) But Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister break away from the matching aesthetic. Heat’s coffee scene is locked down on a tripod, whereas this interrogation is slyly mobile. Pfister’s camera tracks around Batman and Joker’s shoulders almost like a detective would, searching for the slightest tell.
The dynamic in the room is distinctly offset. Like Hanna and McCauley, Batman and Joker spar over their opposing ideologies until it literally comes to blows. The Joker is stalling for time, so every line and gesture is weaponized like a challenge to Batman who knows the clock is winding down. But the Joker won’t reveal anything unless he wants to, and there’s nothing Batman can do to force Joker’s hand. Batman’s desperate to save his friends in time. Joker, meanwhile, is having the time of his life playing a round of poker.
This is the part I wanna zero in on because Nolan ratchets up the tension in just 2 seconds. Batman yanks the Joker across the table, a propulsion of movement captured in 2 handheld shots. No zooms here; it’s Pfister’s camera rushing forward on opposite sides, and it hits with the force of a freight train. When Batman throws the Joker against the wall seconds later, it doesn’t register the same way. Because the Joker never flinches. Batman’s interrogation tactics are rendered meaningless in all of 10 seconds, but he won’t get that ‘til the end of the scene.
As the Joker would have it, the camera angles start to get crazy, the aesthetic more and more uneasy and handheld as Batman turns up the violence. This shot below in particular is disorienting, the camera turning on one axis, the Joker moving on another. When Gordon bolts for the door, it feels queasy even though the camera movement is nothing like that of a shaky found footage movie like Cloverfield. The scenario keeps escalating moment-to-moment.
If before Batman had no trouble pumping info out of criminals, then he’s clearly met
the one his match in the Joker. (Maybe they should’ve gone to a café instead idk.) Batman’s way of the world has turned upside down, and the triumph of the chase scene prior which ended in the clown’s capture is now a distant memory. The interrogation room has become a pressure cooker of mounting tension.
Hans Zimmer’s Joker theme starts to itch in the back of the head like nails on a chalkboard. But the mind-blowing thing I often forget is that Zimmer’s score HAS BEEN PLAYING SINCE THE LIGHTS CAME ON. The ethereal tune just had a changeover, now it’s just one violin note holding for an unbearably long time.
Again, look at how sparingly each line of description reads. After a while, every other line alternates with “Batman, Joker, Gordon…” We’re locked in the interrogation with them and we’re made to feel the situation spiraling out of control. It takes 3 minutes for the Batman to have a sitdown, but less than 60 seconds for him to start beating the shit out of the Joker.
Batman jams the door to stop Gordon from stopping him, and by then we’re suffocating. Batman’s beyond pissed, lost patience, and is more than physically capable to do god knows what. Then the Joker howls in a profoundly upsetting fit of laughter. Batman’s threats and punches have lost their bluster, their power. He’s thrashing at a brick wall. All the power in the room resides in the maniacal clown who’s simply doling out information at his leisure. There’s nothing else Batman can do except ask the same question over and over. He does what he does best (beat up criminals) and the Joker does what he does best (piss off Batman). Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.
Zimmer’s score doesn’t change pitch, the shots get tighter and the angles get crazier, that when Batman finally exits the room, we’re GASPING for air. It’s a release, but it’s hardly a reprieve. Because now Batman has to race to save Rachel Dawes.
The Joker all the while lies there on the floor beaten, yet victorious.