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Heath Ledger shines brilliantly in The Dark Knight

by Glen Baity

If you were worried Heath Ledger’s death would cast a pall over The Dark Knight, your concerns certainly weren’t unfounded.

Ledger was a young actor of exceptional talent, and a loss like that is surely going to resonate. But lay your reservations down. Christopher Nolan’s sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins is a roaring powerhouse for nearly every minute of its two and a half hours, and by the midway point one thing is perfectly clear: The Dark Knight will be overshadowed by nothing. The film picks up about a year after the events of Begins. Gotham City remains a cesspool of corruption. The organized crime population, still running scared with the Batman lurking in the shadows, starts to feel the pinch in a big way when brazen new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) launches an aggressive campaign to scrub Gotham’s underbelly of its criminal stain. But the city, already a pressure cooker, blows a gasket with the arrival of the Joker (Ledger), a scarred lunatic in smeared greasepaint intent on unmasking the savage beneath every human façade. The last time an actor stepped into this role it was Jack Nicholson, who turned in a performance that, for its arguable faults, was nothing less than iconic. For many, his interpretation will still be definitive. But for me, Ledger’s reading of the character makes plain what Nicholson missed: Put simply, the Joker isn’t just a flamboyant maniac. He’s a destructive force, the sum total of everything bad about humanity rolled up into one snarling, giggling package. Most importantly, he’s the polar opposite of Batman. Or is he? Indeed, Nolan’s film (which he wrote with his brother, Jonathan Nolan, from a story he conceived with David S. Goyer) is a major leap forward in large part because of how cerebral it is. The whole superhero genre, at least to me, gets a little more tired with each passing summer, but The Dark Knight transcends any comic-book fatigue you might have because of how intensely it looks into the core of its players.

Early on, we learn that Batman has unwittingly spawned a crew of bumbling, crime-fighting groupies who are just as apt as their hero to take the law into their own hands. It’s a logical consequence of Bruce Wayne’s actions — if one man’s extra-legal crusade is righteous, why not another’s? Why not anyone’s? The film examines these moral questions at some length, and it doesn’t give in to easy answers, especially when it comes to the central conflict. The Joker assures Batman at one point that they’re both freaks to the general population; the Bat is just more useful, and so bears the temporary mantle of “hero.” But when they’re done with him, the Joker says, they’ll turn on him. It’s not an inaccurate prediction. Ledger threw everything into his final role, and his rendering of the Joker is simply brilliant. This is a character with no history, no criminal record, no alias and no clear motive. As Alfred (Michael Caine) rightly observes at one point: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” It’s that lack of any conventional rationale behind his actions that make this character so terrifying, and Ledger takes pains to expose the Joker’s dark, hollow interior. He’s also, it should be said, quite funny. You may be shocked to find yourself laughing, even while he’s carrying out some of the most morally repugnant deeds imaginable. That, I think, is the very definition of powerful acting. But it doesn’t outshine the rest of the film, largely because Nolan is one of the best directors working today. As evidence, I submit that though Ledger’s performance is brilliant, it plays as only a particularly bright strand in a larger tapestry. The Dark Knight is structured almost like a classical tragedy, and Act III belongs to Harvey Dent, whose obsession with justice mutates into its own kind of corruption. Played convincingly by the thoroughly likeable Eckhart, Dent is one of several characters whose universe necessarily revolves around the Bat. The film is great because it never stops examining how Bruce Wayne’s actions affect these people. It’s that inner focus that really sets Knight apart, though the mere sum of its parts is impressive enough. The cast is great; the action sequences are pulse pounding, well-staged and surprising; and the score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard adds even more texture to this gritty, modern noir. The Dark Knight is a powerful swan song for Ledger, but it’s also an event movie that runs on its own steam, one that leaves the viewer optimistic for great things still to come.

To comment on this article, send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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