Tuesday, September 9, 2008
The Dark Knight
I weep for the roles left unplayed by the late Heath Ledger. He was so powerfully repressed, lonely, and inarticulate in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain that it tore my heart out. Perhaps determined to show his versatility as an actor, Ledger took on the iconic role of The Joker, arch-nemesis of Batman, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The Joker, as played by Ledger, is a sadistic, anarchic, murderous psychopath who wants nothing more than to revel in the chaos that he creates. Whereas the popular incarnation played by Cesar Romero on the 1960’s TV show “Batman” was a generally harmless prankster, and Jack Nicholson’s version of the character in Tim Burton’s Batman a more criminal version of that, retaining the camp humor that Romero played, Ledger’s is a true wild card. He’s not a clown, he is the frightening incarnation of evil, determined to make the city of Gotham push its morals to the breaking point, wrapped in stringy hair, a maniacal laugh, and garish make-up.
Crime has escalated in Gotham City since the end of 2005’s Batman Begins, the first movie in Nolan’s reboot of the franchise. Some criminal activity is being dealt with by other vigilante’s who are dressing up as Batman, to play off the fear that the suit and famous cowl represent (even if their low-tech suits are sometimes comprised only of hockey pads). Except these guys are using guns and shooting to kill, the moral point at which Batman draws the line. So Batman himself (again played by Christian Bale) now has to deal with these vigilante’s and the criminals they’re going after. This leads to a frequently exhausted and beaten Bruce Wayne returning home at the end of the night to his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine). The local mafia, headed by Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts), continues without fail, but their presence is being somewhat augmented by the rise of master criminal The Joker (Heath Ledger) who likes to put people in impossible moral situations and see how they react. On Batman’s side in this war are quintessential good cop Jim Gordon (an effortless Gary Oldman), and the “White Knight” of Gotham, new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Complicating matters is that on Dent’s arm happens to be Bruce’s lifelong love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, nicely taking over for an unfairly criticized Katie Holmes). Bruce hopes that Dent can be the face of fighting crime in Gotham City, so that he can hang up his Bat-cape and hopefully settle down with Rachel at his side. The Joker has other plans for the love triangle, plans which take on a sad twist when realizing that The Joker doesn’t even know that Bruce Wayne is Batman.
The script, written by Chris Nolan and his brother Jonathan (from a story by Chris and his Batman Begins co-writer David S. Goyer), is probably the most densely written screenplay you’ll ever find in a big summer blockbuster. That’s because Nolan was searching for something much deeper than your typical “big summer blockbuster”. He explores things like the essence of good and evil, the impact of making impossible decisions, the nature of what makes a hero, and why we need them. The characters are given the kind of complexity sometimes not even reserved for “serious” movies. There are also a number of beautifully poetic dialog exchanges, another thing usually ignored in this type of movie. The movie has a lot going on during its 152 minutes, but it isn’t the jumbled mess that something like Spiderman 3 was. Actually, The Dark Knight transcends any notion of being a “comic book movie”, and simply becomes a terrific movie.
Chris Nolan, throughout his career, has been able to get wonderful actors to give some of their best performances in his movies, whether it was Joe Pantoliano and Guy Pearce in Memento, Hugh Jackman in The Prestige, or the trio of Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and Robin Williams in Insomnia. But he has his best ensemble cast yet in The Dark Knight. Christian Bale returns as Bruce/Batman, and is equally adept at playing Wayne’s oblivious playboy, and adopting the theatrically low raspy voice and intensely focused eyes of Batman. Aaron Eckhart perfectly walks the line between acting the politician telling people to not give up hope in these dark times, and being truly genuine. He gives off the sense that Dent could be the hero that Gotham is really looking for. Gary Oldman, surprising given his history of perfectly hateable villains, is very strong as Lt. Gordon, a role that could’ve come off as the stereotypical “good guy” in someone else’s hands. Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox, the man who developed most of Batman’s gear and is currently acting CEO of the multi-billion dollar Wayne Enterprises. He and Michael Caine add a wise center, as well as some much needed humor to the dour atmosphere of the movie. Eric Roberts and Maggie Gyllenhaal are both quite good, even if they aren’t given much to do. But Heath Ledger will undoubtedly stick out in the minds of the audiences leaving this picture. He has the same type of unnerving impact on the movie that Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter had in The Silence of the Lambs. He may not be onscreen the whole time, but his presence is felt in every scene. It’s a staggering and disturbing performance, and probably the greatest villain the screen has had since Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List 15 years ago.
Sadly, Ledger didn’t get to live to give us more performances as great as this one. There has been much talk about awards for his performance, but I couldn’t care less about that. The Joker will live long after people forget about awards, and honestly I would be surprised to see anyone give an award to a character as reprehensible and morally repugnant as this one. The saddest thing about Ledger’s accidental death is that he seemed to be just hitting his stride. His emotionally wrenching performance in Brokeback Mountain (not to mention his supporting turns in Monster’s Ball, and I’m Not There among others) is so completely different than The Joker that it makes you wonder what other performances he had up his sleeve. I mourn for those lost performances.