David: So we kick off with the frankly virtuosic bank robbery sequence.
Chris: It’s a pretty amazing heist, with this beautifully compact set-up and like five twists before it’s all over, and it’s the first six minutes of the movie.
David: The movie makes one thing completely clear from the get-go: the Joker is an absolute criminal genius, and we learn this from the point of view of his goons. The heist kicks off with two teams: the rooftop crew, which is two goons, and the three who enter in the front and do the entire “let’s shoot AKs in the air and scare people” thing. Except that absolutely NONE of this is as it seems.
Chris: Not just a criminal genius, but a meticulous master planner.
David: We get this in the very beginning, when one of the two goons cuts the silent alarm from the rooftop (after using a grapple launcher to get there from an adjacent building), and not only does he comment (very importantly) that the silent alarm is going to a private number rather than 911, but then his compatriot caps him in the back of the head, on the orders of the Joker himself. The Joker claims to be all about chaos, but that’s all bluster, and this opening sequence proves it: every single action he takes is brilliantly calculated. And credit to the Nolan brothers for being smart enough to write a villain this damn smart.
Chris: It’s the manipulation that sells it. He’s able to manipulate these guys into killing each other — presumably with the promise of a bigger cut of the take — but at the end of the sequence, he’s even able to position himself so that the last robber is actually standing in the right spot to get taken out by the schoolbus. So not only does he get all the money, but there’s no one left to tell everyone how he plotted everything, instead of just being the raving, mass-murdering lunatic that he wants everyone to see him as. That’s his disguise, as much as Batman is Bruce Wayne’s.
David: Yeah, let’s just get this out of the way: the silent goon is the Joker, and this entire heist is an elaborately constructed human Rube Goldberg machine made of social psychology and criminology rather than candles and bird cages. But here’s the thing: every single plan the Joker makes here is predicated on the innate selfishness of human beings. And when you’re dealing with four hired goons and the security force and managers of a mafia bank, that’s a safe bet.
Andy: Right, he plays the systems: human self-interest, human rules and authority.
David: As we’ll see as this movie goes on, the one thing the Joker absolutely cannot predict, and does not plan for, and doesn’t understand, is altruism.
Chris: He and Lord Voldemort have so much to talk about, including their intense hatred of self-righteous orphans.
David: And man, the score during this sequence is amazing. The sense of building tension is perfect.
Andy: I have to tell you guys about this bank set. It’s actually a building called The Old Chicago Post Office, and it is even more grand and impressive in person than it seems in the film. The amount of detail they built into it was incredible. Around the set you could see things that would never appear on screen. There are automatic teller machines whose screens display the name of the bank and its logo, there were brochures and deposit slips with the same. The building was built in 1921, and I can tell you the giant hole in the wall was real.
David: When Bozo is the last clown standing (thanks, subtitles), it’s especially clear that something’s wrong, especially when the bank manager starts yelling at him about how he’s just gonna get capped by his boss like the others. He doesn’t have any idea who he’s dealing with. After everyone’s dead, the Joker reveals himself to the mob boss, who just doesn’t understand the concept of criminal anarchy. He goes on about honor and respect, tenets of omerta that just don’t apply to the Joker. Apparently the Joker is a big Pearl Jam fan, because he has no code.
Andy: The power of the bank heist scene is also enhanced by Nolan’s prodigious use of the IMAX format. Nolan is a classic filmmaker in the sense that he loves big, beautiful, high fidelity images, and the IMAX format is that kind of filmmaker’s best friend. He’s aware that you are going to see this film on a big screen, and he wants to fill that screen with as BIG and visually rich an image as he can, it’s part of Nolan’s mission to pull you into the world of this film and believe in it utterly.
Chris: I love the look that the bank manager gives the Joker, and how — again, as part of his meticulous plan — the Joker totally lets that guy stay free until the end, letting people see who he’s dealing with and what the differences are between the Old Crime of Gotham and the New Crime that’s rising in response to Batman. Old Crime doesn’t have a chance.
Andy: I think the key exchange here is the mob banker asking “What do you believe in?” He is profoundly offended by what’s happened, it’s like a religious war happening in this bank. He cannot believe what he’s seeing. The Joker defies his most sacred beliefs. Beyond being brilliant, the Joker is brazen. He’s attacking a mob bank the way a kid would shake an antfarm. I don’t think the exchange with the mob banker could be any more powerful. It is a religious moment. It is first blood in a religious crusade. “What do you believe in?” is a question that comes up throughout the film.
David: The Joker drives off, blending in perfectly with a passing convoy of school buses (again, that meticulous planning), and then the grenade goes off, and it’s just gas. In an open space. It’s harmless. To show the manager that the Joker is unpredictable, and also because the manager being alive to send a message to the mob about who the culprit was is a crucial step in the Joker’s plan. As a matter of fact, it’s THE crucial step, because this heist wasn’t performed for the money, it was performed purely to send a message.