The word “Batman” is omitted from the title of The Dark Knight for good reason: He’s hardly in it. His screen time pales in comparison to his adversary’s—maybe not in terms of minutes, but certainly in memorableness. To fend off comparisons to Jack Nicholson, director Christopher Nolan pulled a wild card for his Joker: the newly respectable Heath Ledger. And the late actor, with a fusillade of raw (but intricately coordinated) malice, roars past every other respectable performer in this film. It’s an epical swan song for Ledger’s career, and it’s just what Nolan must have been looking for—and it’s exactly wrong for this movie.
Ledger was a very good actor, and might have eventually become a great one, but, even at his best, he was always acting. When his lovelorn cowboy in Brokeback Mountain agonized, one could picture Ledger working up a fury in front of his mirror the morning before. Likewise, every tic, every grimace, every lick of the lips that his Joker makes in The Dark Knight seems right on schedule. Ledger was a sincere hard worker who took professional chances; he meticulously studied and scrutinized every detail of the characters he played and tried his damnedest to absorb their pathos. But, though his hard work paid off, his methods were often transparent. Watching his Joker, one can see the extent of his toils. The problem with his performance, which is a problem with Nolan’s conception, is that Ledger works too hard.
Nicholson, who grew fat on an unprecedented paycheck for his work in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, knew better than to overwork his acting muscles refining the role of a gangster who slips into a vat of acid, decides to wear clown makeup and causes mayhem thereafter. The actor relished in a hammy performance which perfectly jibed with Burton’s excessively silly, off-kilter vision. But Nolan’s no Burton. His take on the superhero franchise has gotten so dark, it’s become lights-out. In Batman Begins, as in Spider-Man II, it was personal—Bruce Wayne, Batman’s Fortune 500 alter ego, battled with his psyche and from villain to villain to villain (with Katie Holmes nestled in between). Nolan’s “darkness,” in comparison to Burton’s, lay mainly in the fact that Christian Bale brooded where Michael Keaton was wry. Batman Begins was great fun because it was given room to grow; the climaxes kept mounting, but the principals were given enough space to cultivate performances that were just funny and believable enough to make Batman’s personal crises plausible. The Dark Knight is all Ledger, all sadism—the Joker is so pumped up that we hardly remember that we’re watching the Joker.
For the role, the Aussie’s boy-next-door looks are tarnished with greasy, phlegm-colored locks, bulbous scars and makeup smeared on like an Insane Clown Posse groupie’s. This Joker’s a clown Rob Zombie would be proud of. But the writers (Nolan co-wrote the script with his brother Jonathan, and the story with David S. Goyer) splatter him throughout the movie as if he were a work of genius. They feed him with little globules of Foucauldian nihilism, and Ledger delivers them menacingly. It boils down to “the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules!”—everything’s random, so let’s dynamite everything set up to maintain order. I’m sure the writers intentionally left the discrepancy between the Joker’s hostility toward order and planning and his ability to pull off elaborate ruses glaring in order to give him a supernatural mystique. But in so doing they waive all grounding this film has in “realism.” It’s silly in the wrong way—pretentious for masquerading as profound. Nolan’s Joker is differentiated from Burton’s because this clown appears to have a Philosophy 101 textbook up his sleeve, and one’s credulousness is further taxed by this Joker’s lack of backstory. His daddy-beat-me tales are all lies; he’s just an omnipotent boogeyman—a Michael Myers—apparently the embodiment of absolute evil. How could Roger Ebert say that, with this film, “Batman is not a comic book anymore” when its bad guy is pure 2-D comic-book contrivance? His motive is to derive pleasure from dispensing pain; it doesn’t get more basic (or shallow) than that. (Critics weren’t too hip to the same shortcoming in No Country for Old Men, either.)
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