A Villain for the Ages

Saturday, July 19th, 2008 | SMASH Pop Culture with

Christopher Nolan’s masterful “Dark Knight”, the latest Batman film that has already made $66.4 million in one day, is a true cinematic achievement. It is certainly dark, but it smartly avoids the flashy action-flick stunts and over-the-top special effects that one would normally expect. This is a deeply thoughtful film, a moral tale of good versus evil, of how we see our roles in an increasingly corrupt and dangerous world. Batman, played with great depth by Christian Bale, is a conflicted and sometimes flawed persona who symbolically bleeds and gets injured, even through his protective armor. Around him is a city, Gotham, that becomes as much a vibrant character as all the others. Gotham is crumbling, its leaders and citizens are being killed, and it is at the mercy of not only a band of criminals, but a spectacular new, amoral force which can only be defined in our modern society as a terrorist.

That terrorist –and there is no other way to describe him–is the Joker and to say that he is the center of this film, in his embodiment of evil and skin-crawling horror–is to underestimate the enormous power of Heath Ledger’s performance. Much has been written already about the sheer skill that Ledger, in one of his last portrayals, has brought to his role as the Joker. It is most definitely not hype. It is a performance for the ages, and a villain like no other in modern cinema. I would be hard pressed to find anything even remotely close.

We all know Jack Nicholson, in his perfect purple suit and professional face paint job –but that was a showy, jokey performance which somehow fit a showier, Batman-as-savior film from Tim Burton. This Joker comes at you ferociously and you wonder how through the disturbingly splattered face makeup, a person of such sadism, pent-up anger and anarchy could exist. Those trailers that we’ve seen already of the Joker? You have no idea what you’re in for, because there are scenes that are far more harrowing. (At the showing last night, audience members clapped at the end of the first scene Ledger was in; by the fourth or fifth scene, the audience was stunned into silence.)

For those who have seen the movie already, you know what I’m talking about. The scene where the Joker is being interrogated by the Police Commissioner and then, lights on, Batman takes over. Or the moment when the Joker, disguised as a nurse, comes to Harvey Dent’s room as he recovers from his injury, just minutes before the Joker waltzes away, tics and smirks with a remote control in his jittery hands, and Gotham General Hospital is blown apart in a furious explosion.

Ledger’s portrayal is far from caricature, and this is why his performance has been so universally acclaimed. He is not like any other villain in the sense that he wants material things or power. “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you”, he says in one scene, “simply makes you…stranger”. His vision of one of anarchy because all he wants is to “upset the established order” –that’s it. Meanwhile, Gotham is literally burning and that order and the heroes that usually protect it are powerless to defeat it.

What Ledger brings to his role reminds us not only of his extraordinary talent (to take nothing away of the excellent cast, including Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, the wonderful Michael Caine and glorious Morgan Freeman) that has been taken away so soon. His searing performance plumbs the depth of what it means to be evil and the unsettling fact that we can become prisoners to it, and not be able to fully understand and rationalize what this is as it is happening all around us.

An Academy Award nomination next winter? Not just that –he will win this award –posthumously. If this weekend’s predicted $130-150 million take is any indication, his performance will tower over all the others this year.

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1 Comment »

Comment by Seaz
2008-07-21 11:17:46

Hey, no word about Ledger’s death?

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