Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Man on Film: The Joker

This is the first of what I anticipate to be a couple of post-scripts to my review of The Dark Knight. I probably rushed the review, which is ironic since it took so long to actually get around to writing it. I have seen it three times now, the first occasion being on the Sunday of its opening weekend. I saw it another two times over this past weekend, and it took that long to really feel like I could start on something somewhat substantive. Unfortunately, I decided it would be a good idea to write the review last night at about 1:00 am. At any rate, here goes the first appendix to my gushing over The Dark Knight...


Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker is historically great. Sure, this is an en vogue statement. He died tragically young. The buzz behind his turn was deafening. The climate was obviously ripe for this groundswell of acclaim.

There is also a general public yearning to pay respect to the posthumous performances of those who have passed, even when such adoration is not warranted. It's the same kind of mindset that governs the voting for the Oscars with what amounts to semi-annual career achievement awards given out to undeserving performances.

Ledger's performance operates entirely outside of that sphere of thought. Anyone who saw Brokeback Mountain could see his capacity for inspiring awe in an audience, as his performance was the one that pulled that film out of the realm of the ordinary. Granted his track record was anything but spotless, but it often seemed like the material was beneath his skill-level. This material is not. The anarchic, amoral villainy of the Joker in Nolan's Batman universe is so unsettling and unpredictable that perhaps a lesser actor could have emblazened the Joker into the collective psyche of the film-going public. I'm not sure that many other actors would have gone to the great lengths that Ledger did in placing himself in that mindset, though.

This Joker goes into the pantheon of movie villains. Its home there is instantaneously apparent. Put him in the conversation with last year's chilling Anton Chigurh, Nurse Ratched, or Regan in The Exorcist and the others on the shortlist for greatest villains in the cinema's history.

First, it is probably necessary to determine what separates Ledger's Joker from Nicholson's. Nicholson was all fine and dandy. It was perfectly in tone with Burton's vision. He stole the show, much like you could argue Ledger does in The Dark Knight. He had fun with the Joker, and I don't think there would have been many arguing against Nicholson having owned the role. Where Nicholson's Joker is in line with Burton's somewhat more overt comic book tone, Ledger's Joker is legitimately scary in Nolan's slightly more contemporary starkly realistic take on the franchise.

In his largely faceless introductory scene, we are introduced to the Joker in a sepia-tinged daylight bank robbery that would have fit more in a modern crime epic directed by the likes of Scorsese or Ridley Scott than in a superhero flick. It is this scene in which we are introduced to the brashly unpredictable actions of the Joker. His reputation precedes him, or at least the revelation of his face. As each henchman perishes at the hand of another once his utility to the heist has run its course, there is no pause in judging this a different Joker. The ballsiness of his plan to rob a mob-run bank when combined with the fact that he systematically eliminates five of his own men over the run of the first six minutes of the film take care of any hesitancy to view him in an entirely unique light. The fact that his own henchmen are gossiping about him as if he's a spectre lend an air of mystery and unease to him before his face is even shown. And even though you kind of know that man whose back is to the screen on that street corner in the open is the Joker, his initial facelessness lends to that mysteriousness.

His proposition to the mob bosses that follows is boldly hilarious and emboldens the impression that he truly follows no code. His shockingly funny magic trick and his calling out of squealers show that there is no fear in this Joker. Each time he flashes his lizard-like tongue action that marks the entire performance or every time he swoons quasi-drunkenly you can't help but marvel at the flair Ledger embodies the role with.

As the movie rolls on and his special brand of havoc is unleashed on Gotham City, the thing that sticks out is the sheer lawlessness his actions are meant to elicit. With each domino his actions topple, men and women are meant to forsake all rules of a morally-driven society in favor of a primal survivalism. His recruitment exercise, his ferry experiment, and ultimately his deconstruction of the white knight are all motivated by the sport of forcing chaos upon those who try to hold fast to a moral code. The harder they hold on, the harder the Joker hopes to make them fall, and his success is what strikes fear in the audience the most.

Amazingly, at the same time that fear lies deep within, there is the surface reaction of laughter at the Joker's way of carrying himself. While his motive is unnerving on a basic level, the way he carries himself is endearing. You at times find yourself almost rooting for the Joker to succeed. As he blows up a hospital, you find yourself laughing. He does crazy-ass shit. He stops by the wall-mounted hand sanitizer dispenser after having a gun to his head and follows his hand cleaning by blowing up the hall behind him. He dances maniacally over his shocked henchman as Batman lays on the ground. He burns a mountain of his own money with Lao on top of it because he simply didn't need it to begin with.

And maybe the beauty of the performance lies in that duality. The audience falls in love with the sociopath and perhaps that's the most disturbing aspect of the whole performance. Regardless, it is a sublime performance that has clearly struck a chord if you can judge that by the box office receipts.

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