Scene Analysis: The Dark Knight
Screenwriters: Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan
What are the ingredients of a good scene?
In its most basic sense, a scene should aim to either move the plot forward or reveal character, ideally both. A scene typically has the following elements:
- Protagonist: Character who drives the scene.
- Antagonist: Someone/something that stands in direct opposition to the protagonist.
- Want: The goal of the protagonist in the scene.
- Conflict: How the antagonist is preventing the protagonist from achieving their goal.
- Stakes: What happens if the protagonist doesn’t get what they want? The answer to the question of “Why is this scene happening now?”
Something to keep in mind is these elements can change throughout a scene and don’t all have to be made clear at the very beginning of the scene.
Scene: The Dark Knight – Interrogation Room
You’ve all seen the film by now (and if you haven’t, change that ASAP). This particular scene occurs around the midpoint. The Joker is captured, but we just learned that Harvey Dent has gone missing. Regarding the five elements of a scene above, here’s what we know at the beginning:
Protagonist – Jim Gordon
Antagonist – Joker
Want – Gordon needs the location of Harvey Dent.
Conflict – Joker won’t give up the location.
Stakes – Unknown
Pay attention to how the scene moves the plot forward while revealing character. Specifically, be sure to notice not just how this scene reveals the stakes, but even raises them.
Check out the scene here:
We start off with Gordon asking the Joker to give up Dent’s location. Being the master manipulator that he is, Joker doesn’t cooperate and instead throws the blame back at Gordon suggesting that there must be untrustworthy officers in his unit since Dent was left in their care. This moment creates tension in the room as its clear the Joker is two steps ahead of everyone else.
It’s after Gordon asks a second time that the stakes for this scene are truly revealed. Joker says “Depending on the time, (Dent) may be in one place or several.” Just like that we learn Dent is in mortal danger AND that there is a ticking clock. To make matters worse, Joker doesn’t tell us how much time is on the clock.
Stakes – Dent is in mortal danger and time is running out.
Gordon recognizes the Joker has complete control of the situation and decides to take more drastic measures by letting Batman take over the interrogation. This switches our protagonist in the scene.
Protagonist – Batman
Batman immediately resorts to physical violence. This is important because in order to try and take back control opposing stakes must be raised. Now Joker knows that if he doesn’t cooperate he will be subjected to physical harm. We already knew what Batman wanted, but now we know what he’s willing to do to get it.
Next, we get about a minute and a half of Joker attempting to manipulate Batman by proving Batman is more like him than the cops he fights with and the citizens he fights for. This section of the scene does a fantastic job of revealing character. Joker believes that morality is an illusion, and people will turn on one another if given the opportunity. Batman has a strong moral code and believes the people of Gotham abide by that same code. This essentially lays out the theme of the film: chaos vs order.
Batman, ticking clock still in mind, resorts again to physical harm to get Joker to reveal Dent’s location. What happens next is the most pivotal character reveal of the film. Batman mentions he abides by just one rule (no killing), and this is when we learn what it is that Joker TRULY wants: to make Batman break his one rule. This goes above the wants of this single scene and unveils for the first time what Joker’s character motivation truly is.
If that wasn’t enough, the tension is ratcheted up even more when Joker finally divulges the full stakes of the scene when he says “There’s only minutes left so you’re gonna have to play my little game if you wanna save one of them.” And again, new stakes are set.
Stakes – Dent and Rachel are in mortal danger and there are only minutes left to save them.
At this point Joker has gained complete control of the situation. With the stakes now personal, Batman barricades himself in the interrogation room and desperately attempts to regain control by inflicting harsher violence. However, because Joker knows Batman’s one rule, he knows that Batman doesn’t pose a mortal threat and laughs at the unhinged caped crusader.
The scene concludes with Joker giving up the separate locations of both Dent and Rachel, but not because he was forced to, but because he has succeeded in getting what he wants: Batman must make a choice between saving Dent or Rachel. Joker leaves Batman with this crucial line: “Killing is making a choice.” No matter whom Batman chooses to save, in doing so he is also choosing which one will have to die. Joker was right; Batman will have to break his one rule tonight, setting us up beautifully for the second half of the film.
What can we learn from this scene?
There’s plenty of things to gush about when it comes to the writing of this scene. As I mentioned before, where I find it really shines is how it is able to seamlessly and continuously raise the stakes. What starts as a quiet interrogation erupts into violent mayhem with two supporting characters in mortal danger. Our protagonist and antagonist take turns fighting for control of the scene as the shifts in power coincide with the reveal of new stakes. The Nolans understand that the best way to keep an audience’s attention is by constantly revealing new information. In this instance they let the Joker reveal the stakes bit by bit, allowing tension to build, keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat.
Hailing from Cleveland, Torey Sinclair spent 6 years studying film and screenwriting at Ohio University and Chapman University, earning his BA and MFA respectively. After spending time in the IP Department and as Social Media Coordinator, Torey currently works as InkTip’s Marketing Manager. His free time is usually spent either writing, watching indie films, or hoping for a Cleveland Guardians World Series.