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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Joker’s Wild (The Dark Knight)

Heath Ledger’s Gotham Nights

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   Life overtook art in January with the death of Heath Ledger, the Joker in The Dark Knight. Ledger was one of Hollywood’s rising actors and his role as the supervillain in the much-anticipated sequel to Batman Begins would cinch his stardom.

  Dead or alive, Ledger was destined to dominate The DarkKnight. An unspoken rule is in effect: The bad guys tend to get the best lines in Hollywood; they are usually more flamboyant than their opponents, more intriguing and mysterious. Poor Christian Bale never has a chance. As Batman (or “the Batman” as he’s often called in a nod to the earliest comic strips), he is left to brood heavily under his kinky black leather mask. The screen belongs to Ledger’s Joker, even if the streets of Gotham are up for grabs.

  It’s a terrific performance, as memorable as Jack Nicholson’s classic turn in the role (in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman) but even more dangerous. In The Dark Knight, the Joker is an evil trickster, the embodiment of chaos, and Ledger’s wound-up performance is perfect. There is no plan the Joker won’t undermine, no ally he won’t double-cross, no scheme he won’t overturn. His rule is there are no rules worth obeying, no truth that’s not a lie. He even changes his origin story, the tale of how he became so grotesque, three times by movie’s end.

  The Joker is impossible to pen in or pin down, his capacity for brutality unrestricted by reason or faith. He throws gasoline and a match on stacks of money piled to the rafters of a warehouse and delights at the crackling bonfire. With his pasty pancake face marked with a broad red mouth slash and black rings around his expressive eyes, he’s a sinister clown, a glib-tongued master of evasion. The crusading District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), labels him a terrorist but in his lawless destruction the Joker puts even Al Quaeda and the Shining Path in the shade. How to fight an enemy without a cause beyond, perhaps, his own survival as an avatar of nihilism?

  In rampage after rampage, Dent, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and the Batman strain to hold back this walking nightmare. Poor Christian Bale. His ostensible love interest, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), excites no chemistry, even when she’s on Dent’s arm. The most Bale gets as an actor is to speak in a low voice of bitter hostility, reeking of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. The Joker makes his day repeatedly.

  Strain a little and mixed messages about America’s role in the world can be heard. One of Batman’s billionaire alter ego’s faithful sidekicks, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), resigns after his boss asks him to tap every cell phone in Gotham to locate the Joker—but not until after the job is done. Like most Americans, The Dark Knight is uncertain over the balance between liberty and security. Bruce Wayne’s trusted valet Alfred (Michael Caine) warns, “Know your limits, Master Wayne.” With a touch of Cockney humility and shrewdness, Caine adds sparkle to the mostly midnight-black film.

  Too bad Alfred’s warning goes unheeded. The limits of power are a persistent subtext in The Dark Knight. Dent’s for-broke assault on Gotham’s multi-ethnic Mafia, tied to an officially sanctioned Chinese money launderer, prompts the mob to call on the Joker. The consequences on all sides are unexpected. The mobsters are squeezed out by the Joker’s berserker brutality, his contempt for anything as conventional as crime for profit, and the agents of order, including the Batman, are tempted to resort to torture.

  Directed once again by Christopher Nolan, The DarkKnight has none of the eager creativity within a tight budget that marked his indie debut, Memento. The story threatens to become incoherent; the narrative begins to crumble from the computer-generated visual excess of bone breaking violence, exploding cars and demolished buildings. The Dark Knight clocks in around a half hour too long for its own good.

  Like a really bad news day, there are only a few points of light in the darkness but they are important. In one of the most moving scenes, the passengers on a pair of ferryboats, faced with the chance to save themselves by pushing a button detonating the other boat, are finally moved to toss the detonators into the river. The Joker is momentarily flummoxed. In a world of corruption and decay, people can’t always be counted on to do the wrong thing.