The Dark Knight: Anatomy of a Flawed Action Scene

There are many ways to make a movie, says film critic Jim Emerson, and many ways to make a mess.

The truck chase scene from Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight is frankly a mess, as Emerson demonstrates in a fascinating video essay (above) produced as the first in a three-part series on the language of action sequences for the Indiewire blog Press Play. “We notice lapses in visual logic whether our brains register them consciously or not,” writes Emerson. “I found this scene utterly baffling the first time I saw it, and every subsequent time. At last, I now know exactly why.”

After studying the sequence shot by shot he realized that Nolan had violated fundamental rules of film grammar. You can follow along as Emerson, a Seattle-based critic who writes the Scanners film blog for the Chicago Sun-Times, sorts out the confusion. (There is an accompanying annotated transcript on Scanners.) And be sure to watch Emerson’s follow-up essays (below) which offer shot-by-shot analyses of action scenes that are clearly intelligible.

In Part II of his series (above), Emerson breaks down the highway chase scene from Phillip Noyce’s 2010 film, Salt. The sequence is easy to follow because Noyce is careful to establish the spatial relationships between the various elements, both within the frame and between shots. Writes Emerson:

There are certain directors I think of as “one-thing-at-a-time” filmmakers. That is, they seem to be incapable of composing shots that have more than one piece of information in them at a time. This makes for a very flat, rather plodding style. You see what the camera is pointed at in each shot, but you get very little sense of perspective when it comes to relating it to other elements in the scene. Noyce’s technique is much more fluid, organic and sophisticated. He keeps things from one shot visible in the next, even when shifting perspective–whether it’s only a few feet or clear across several lanes of traffic.

In Part III (above), Emerson revisits classic chase scenes from three films: Don Siegel’s The Lineup (1958), Peter Yates’s Bullitt (1968) and William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971). In each case the director takes you on a chaotic, bumpy ride–but never loses you.

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Comments (28)
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  • Louis says:

    I hope no one is using this to learn. It’s sad really he used great quotes but just doesn’t get it.

  • Isaac says:

    I’ve learned a couple of things. Thank you!

  • Dunleavy says:

    Jon Favreau is another who has no idea how to stage an action sequence. Iron Man was visually stiff and full of unreal moments like Stark remaining unharmed after smashing into the ground at full speed.

    Michael Bay set the action set piece standard with the robot scorpion attack scene in Transformers. But, unfortunately, by the end of the same movie he was pulling a Nolan, cutting so quickly that the action is unfollowable.

  • Thomas Lines says:

    I’ll be honest, I watched and rewatched his explanation of the bit with the lorry and I still can’t see where he’s coming from there. Three lanes, the lorry heading horizontally smashes into the van and since the lorry is heading horizontally the van has to be forced backwards away from the path of the lorry which is the direction we see it hitting the water. The lorry follows turn the other way and into the third lane. (and from when the van hits a pillar there are obviously three lanes at least). But I always found this scene a little confusing and the recut of the batmobile smashing into the truck looked so much better than the actual thing

  • Matt says:

    I saw both movies when they came out and when I read this article I remembered the Dark Knight Chase scene vividly and didn’t recall the Salt one at all. Despite its poor grammar the Dark Knight seems to have gotten its point across much better.

  • Thomas Lines says:

    The only other thing, was I the only person who found the middle shot of the five shot jumps really jarring? The camera swings round in a U really quickly but both time it flips around at the bottom and then carries on with the U. But anyway these were a really interesting series and I’ve never even thought of films like that before, it makes their creation seem a lot more exciting :D

  • Tommy says:

    Before I get into this, keep in mind I’ve only had time to watch the Dark Knight video before posting.

    Anyway, I appreciate what you’ve done here and I think it can be really helpful to both editors and directors. I think the problem here is the sheer scale of this scene. When I saw the scene for the first time, I was blown away by the action all done with little CGI. And that there is the downside to not using CGI: it’s going to be hard to replicate a scene again and again. And we’re not even taking into account logistics of how a truck may hit another truck–I imagine we’re talking about millions upon millions of dollars for shots that might be recorded for sixty seconds.

    And yeah, the actual usual space and grammar is pretty haphazardly done, but I don’t think it disorients most normal viewers or even viewers who might be more well versed in film technique. I think what a lot of reviewers were referring to with some of those criticisms was with some of the fight scenes where Nolan seems to favor CU’s following CU’s which make it really hard to figure out who’s punching who. It’s the Bourne style not done nearly as well.

    I mean, this scene isn’t perfect, but I think considering the very little room for mistakes they had, I feel the editor did pretty damn well in keeping the space relatively clear.

    Still, great article and I agree with you, but I definitely think that with a large scale scene like this, where little to no CGI is used, editors have to

  • Tommy says:

    Got cut off somehow. Long story short: good article, nice video. I just think with a scene where so much money was running on every single shot, editors are forced to be creative and break rules in the least disorienting ways.

  • EMD says:

    I would argue fight scenes are in much more peril with spatially-destructive hyper editing than chase scenes. At least most chase scenes have to hold a relatively linear path to make sense (thus a ‘chase’) whereas fighting sequences can occupy any type of space.

    Guy Ritchie assaults the senses with his Sherlock 2 fight shlockery. He almost redeems himself with the well played flight-into-the-woods chase sequence, but not quite.

    Ronin is a modern piece that seems to hold together as an exciting chase set piece that keeps its self-contained narrative intact. A lot of directors/editors fail to realize that action set pieces are stories with beginnings, middles, and ends all their own within the context of the larger story. It’s sad to see them overly-manipulated in a vain pursuit of style.

  • Jake says:

    I have only seen the dark knight video but i thought it was an interesting study of a big budget action scene. However, many of the points raised, despite claiming otherwise, are about continuity errors as opposed to use of space. The key component of this scene is the close confines of the location. Therefore, when shooting an action scene in such close quaters close ups, quick cuts and a sense of chaos is playing to the strengths of your surroundings and creates a thrilling, kinetic scene. And the logistics of the tight space means it is impossible to stay true to the 180° rule, which very few films stick to religiously anyway. It is a guideline to ensure audience orientation, if it is broken but orientation is maintained and the rhythm is constant, job done. Extra vehicles, position of vehicles etc are an issue of continuity and therefore are irrelevant compared to the larger context of this film. I will use this video as a resource for film students that i teach for you put your opinion across well and the film explores the technicalities of an action scene in detail.

  • Tim says:

    What if it was comic book grammar and not film grammar?

  • Kazz says:

    total waste of energy trying to criticize greatness – what has this guy done lately?

  • yurenchu says:

    Nice analyses in those clips. However, the problem in that scene from The Dark Knight when the truck hits the SWAT van is not a continuity error. The trajectories of the vehicles do match up, the SWAT van simply made a more than 90 degree turn to its left, while the truck makes a 90 degree turn to its right after crossing the second lane into the third lane. The composition also matches up: when it’s hit, the SWAT van moves from left to right, and when it heads into the water, it is also moving left to right. The confusion arises from the camera movement when the SWAT van crashes into the water: the camera is zooming in/moving into the SWAT van but should have zoomed out/moved back from the SWAT van (because that’s the direction where the rest of the pursuit, and hence the action, was going).

    The other complaints do hold up though.

  • Shaun Pearson says:

    I’m watching the film for the 6th or 7th time right now and was compelled to search for comments on the god-awful writing for this part of Dark Knight. For me I have always somewhat disliked that same sequence in Dark Knight, but not for the reasons Emerson goes on about. For me the writing was awful. The stupid cliched one liners I’ve heard in countless other films just jump out and insult my sense of taste. And by the way – the shot of The Joker hanging his head out the cop car with hair blowing & neon lights reflecting off glass & metal, all done in slow motion is an amazing moment.

  • HammerHead says:

    Moral of the story:

    Storyboards. Use ’em.

  • Xtalline says:

    This article is pure crap and pontification by a nothing who reads a lot of hacky “art theory” and just regurgitates this bullshit. Half the points you try to make are just flat out wrong, from trying to claim that a car getting t-boned by a fucking 18 wheeler wouldn’t spin out to trying to act like shooting an RPG out of a moving truck would be easy (hint: RPGs have propulsion and don’t move nearly as fast as a bullet so he was trying to lead the truck and didn’t get it right the first time; you would know this if you ever shot one before). You try to insert a lot of this pseudo-intellectual bullshit into the scene about lines of action without realizing that the entire point of the scene was to convey a sense of chaos; Harvey’s inside a truck that he can’t see outside of and they were trying to instill that vertigo because when you’re hit at high speeds it’s not as apparent as you’d think where you were hit from or what’s even going on outside. This video is pure trash; you’d have been better off critiquing some of the hacky fight scenes he had where Batman would put a grown man down with a weak karate chop, but even those silly things were few and far between.

  • Marc says:

    Great videos. I’ve always hated Nolan’s action sequences. He really can’t shoot action to save his life.

  • WC says:

    This is the most pettifogging BS I’ve ever heard about a Nolan film, or any film. I honestly had to stop watching because of how stupid it is. I guess I’ll begin where I stopped watching: your comment about you not understanding why they had the 2 second Joker cut. You see, the helicopter faded out to the Joker motif. Motif: a distinctive feature or dominant idea in an artistic or literary composition. This is building up the suspense. “It’s so brief it’s not really effective.” It is effective because that 2 second scene implies that they’re running into the Joker’s trap, and he’s behind it all. I don’t really know how that’s so hard to understand. That 2 second shot after the fade in to the Joker motif and the wide shot of the convoy tells us everything we need to know before heading into the tunnel: the convoy is set to transfer Harvey Dent and he is in a vulnerable state, and they are heading straight in to (literally) a face-off with the Joker.

    I tried giving it one more shot, but then you made that terrible comment about the imprecision of Nolan’s perspective shot of the convoy as they pass the burning fire truck. Sure, it’s a little inconsistent maybe by 20 feet, but that’s probably because they’re driving by it.

    I don’t mean to be disrespectful, because usually I enjoy critiques of movies deified like the Dark Knight, but this video essay is flat out not worth the time.

    • Rude says:

      “Not worth my time” is precisely the judgement made by those who didn’t take the time to watch it and therefor the least qualified to judge.

  • Ed says:

    Kazz: Total waste of energy trying to criticize a great critique with an ad hominem attack. You don’t have to be Richard Halsey to write a good article on editing; it stands on its own merits, not on the reputation of its author.

  • IO says:

    Emerson didn’t need to make three separate 10minute+ videos to talk mainly about continuity and spacing (there were moments when he was being opinionated about stylistic choices that made him come across a bit crass). After watching ‘Every Frame A Painting’ it’s easy to see how these kinds of videos fall flat at getting their point across.

  • Micheal Lunny says:

    These are terrific essays and the examination of the pursuit scene in The Dark Knight really helped me pin down why I dislike Nolan’s action directing so much.

    Since then Nolan’s action scene direction has improved a little (apart from his fight scenes) while his writing ability has deteriorated. Interstellar is a car crash of a film.

  • JSL says:

    Just goes to prove that if a film is working emotionally and viscerally, an audience will overlook poor filmic grammar, if they even notice it at all.

  • Brandyn says:

    Thats what I’m finding so frustrating about this guys breakdown of the chase… I can see the van hitting the water may have been travelling too fast to have just recently been turned around 180 degrees, but good lord this guy seems intent on not understanding the scene. What do you mean the truck should be in the same lane as the convoy? No there was always a lane to the convoys left, because they are in america, and america drives on the right. So now the semi (Lorry) is just next to the convoy… it isn’t a super easy to follow sequence, but damnit if he isn’t making it even more complicated with his assumptions and just seemingly inability to think spatially

  • Eduardo says:

    No wonder cinema is so boring these days. And this video is the perfect example of why this is going on. Have filmmakers (and apparently Emerson) forgotten that movies are fantasy? I’m definitely not a fan of Nolan’s, but c’mon people, are you really gonna say that when you were watching this scene you were like “oh, there’s something wrong with this scene”? Please, you’re not that special, I know you were on the edge of your seats. The scene is flawed, of course, but the fact that someone actually took their time to break the scene into stupid continuity issue is ridiculous. As an editor, I feel that trying to make these type of arguments is ridiculous. What matters it what people feel watching the scene and I’m pretty sure that a continuity issue that isn’t jarring enough for people to laugh at is not enough reason to say that a scene is badly cut. I wished Emerson played the whole scene after his “review” and I’m pretty sure people wouldn’t remember half of the things he said. Please stop picking at simplistic stuff to make you look smart. This is not smart, it’s realistic at it’s worst. There are so many examples of terrible film editing in action scenes, just look at Casino Royale – the editor doesn’t give the viewer enough time the understand what’s going on, so you never understand the dynamic of the action scenes.

  • Jak says:

    I come back to this every couple of years, I really like these videos. The first one helps cement why I find The Dark Knight so frustrating (although it’s worth a watch for Heath Ledger’s performance).

    I really enjoy action and when it’s done correctly it tickles part of my brain. I’ve made a few action sequences myself and any knowledge I can gain on the subject is invaluable.

    Thanks for your great vids!

  • Ben says:

    -Agree with an approach- tricky person, therefore slow time right down, and explain. May CN be happy, well, free of suffering, making progress btw.
    -Disagree with 09:41. Given the legitimacy of much of what you say, I’m going along with what you are saying. But this bit possible explanation was the brain had got its setting as fault finding- but to me it didn’t seem a glaring error because the force of the blow could have spun the swat truck a bit around. You’re on about grammar- this feels not ‘its/it’s’ rather ‘focused focussed’. Thank you! though.

  • Mfundo says:

    Love this comment – you’ve just won the debate. I think if people also took time to understand Nolan’s vision of how HE wanted the movie to be like and the directions he took then we would understand. I don’t agree with Jim on a lot because I have seen a couple of reviews on the Dark Knight and I understand the orientation of the scenes.

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