Movie News & Reviews

Ledger's skill in 'Dark Knight' will disturb you

If you had your druthers, what kind of supervillain would you be?

I would say I'd like to be one with the power to disintegrate myenemies under a withering barrage of insults about their appearanceand sexuality, but I've already got that. Strangely, "Weakness forBourbon-Man" is not popular at parties.

In terms of movie villains, Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker in TheDark Knight would be pretty damn tempting. His Joker is like theuberman of bad guys: beyond good and evil, fearless as three dozenwolverines, as crazy as Dionysus but as brilliant and deliberate asApollo. A sociopathic, casually murderous Apollo, it's true, but withsupervillains, that comes with the territory.

The most impressive part? The Joker doesn't even have superpowers. Anybozo with the power to shoot ultra-plasma from his eyes can take theworld hostage, but it takes a special kind of talent to hold millionsof people at your mercy using no more than the raw force of yourpersonality. In case you're keeping score, this is also why Batmanalways beats Superman: it's not the strength of a thousand trains thatmakes a man great, it's the strength of his will.

It's a new day in Gotham. District attorney Aaron Eckhart andChristian Bale (as Batman) are looking to put the city's mob behindbars. The intervention of shadowy businessman Chin Han buys the localcrooks some time, but a new face in the underworld — HeathLedger — thinks the only way to keep crime on the streets is to takeBale out for good.

The mob laughs Ledger off, then goes down hard when Bale brings Han tojustice. Once the bulk of the city's organized crime is behind bars,Ledger is free to run wild.

His first edict: Bale must turn himself in, or Ledger starts killingpeople. Against a criminal motivated not by money but by the sheerthrill of anarchy, even Bale seems powerless to stop him.

Superhero movies have always been great action-setpiece deliverysystems. The recent addition of emotional depth and a non-pun-basedsense of humor has made the genre respectable among even those sad humanbeings who need more from their movies than explosions and evil plansto dominate the world. The Dark Knight takes this a stepfurther, giving its action scenes a clear backseat to the pitch-blackmorality of a hero facing a villain who plays by no rules at all.

Because The Dark Knight isn't just a clever name. This stuff isdark, starting and stopping with Ledger's menacing, off-kiltertake on the Joker. Ledger must have been huffing some serious crazyfumes to tap into whatever he's channeling here — it's virtuallyimpossible to play a villain who's both larger than life and utterly,chillingly believable, but man, does he pull it off.

Is your favorite kind of murder the type that makes you laugh inmingled shock, horror and delight? Good news! Ledger will make youcrack up at things no decent human should laugh at. Comfortingly, youwon't be alone.

The escalating violence and chaos of Ledger's rise to power sits atthe heart of director/co-writer Christopher Nolan's pressure-cookerscript, which ups the ante as precisely as the tense, bare-bones scoredoles out notes. Spider-Man 3 suffered from trying to cram toomuch into one film. Pound for pound, The Dark Knight isprobably its equal in plot points and bad guys, but Nolan'slaser-tight focus on a world's slide into disorder and the steps Balemust take to oppose it give the movie a narrative drive that makesevery scene feel essential.

A close examination of the fragility of civilization isn't exactlywhat you expect from a summer blockbuster. Frankly, I'd be happy with90 minutes of a robot fighting a dinosaur, so long as that fight feltlike something the director was genuinely excited about rather thanbeing a calculated effort to part me with a chunk of my laughablyslender wallet.

The Dark Knight shoots for a whole lot more. It's bleak,troubling, and about eight different shades of black so black thatJohnny Cash himself would think they're too black to wear — all thatand it has time to be as thrilling and epic and well-acted as anysuperhero movie to date.

With luck, it's going to cast a welcome shadow over the genre for a long, long time.

Grade: A