Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight: Heath Ledger

It is difficult for me to write an unbiased, honest review of Chris Nolan’s newest installment in the Batman series. Why so difficult? I have loved Batman for as long as I can remember, or least since the first time I saw Batman Returns, which remains, to this day, my favorite of the enterprise. I suppose I love Batman for many of the same reasons other people do—he is, by definition, not a superhero, but rather a man with deep emotional wounds that drive him to seek revenge. However, what elevates Batman to the level of hero (or anti-hero, depending on how you look at it), is that he finds his taste for revenge to be insatiable.

So, I won't write a review. Instead, I will write an ode.

Batman Begins was an admirable first foray into the world of Gotham. I personally found it clunky and boring, mainly because of all the high-tech bullshit and unnecessary back-story. Also, Katie Holmes’ face makes my skin crawl and her total and complete worthlessness as an actor doesn’t exactly excite me, either. But when I heard, over a year ago, that Nolan would take on Batman again and that Heath Ledger would step into the role of the Joker, I was intrigued. Heath Ledger?

At that point, Heath had yet to knock our socks off with his performance in Brokeback Mountain. To me, he was a marginally-talented, gorgeous Australian with excellent taste in women. But Brokeback Mountain changed all that—his heart-wrenching portrait of Ennis Del Mar confirmed that Heath was playing for the big leagues. But Heath’s personal life seemed to suffer when his professional one flourished: his fairytale romance with Michelle Williams ended—(he once said in an interview on the conception of his daughter, Matilda Rose, “Michelle and I were so in love . . . we just did what our bodies told us to do"), Batman wrapped, and Heath was seen skulking about New York City, canoodling with models, and generally looking like hell.

And then, we all know what happened next.

Heath Ledger's performance in this film surpasses all the hype and praise it has earned thusfar in the press. It has been years since I've seen any actor commit to a role so purely and with such energy that it takes the breath away from the audience, whose reaction is littered with bouts of nervous laughter. Ledger's Joker is absolutely terrifying, a complete and natural maniac. He is not the product of a chemical bath, a fire, or a maiming. He is, in a way, the shadow against all of Gotham, the invisible man: the criminally insane. Those who cease to exist in this society because they do not fit into our parameters of black and white. As Manola Dargis so aptly put it in her review, "He isn’t fighting for anything or anyone. He isn’t a terrorist, just terrifying."

See this film for Ledger's performance, if for no other reason. It is fascinating in its cruelty and its romance, perhaps the best combination we can ask for in the ultimate villain. When the Joker escapes his holding cell (in an oh so creative way) and drives away into Gotham's night, head out the window, all smiles, hair blowing in the breeze, there is something so visually stunning about Ledger and Nolan's camerawork here that I felt as though I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life.


I apologize if you've read this post in order to get a sense of the entire film. I realize that I have failed in that capacity. Of course you should see it, of course it's exciting, of course: it's Batman. It's *the* action film of the summer. You don't want to miss out on that. Yes, there's poor dialogue, completely unrealistic scenes, and bad acting.

Critics and fans alike have claimed that making this movie killed Heath Ledger. I disagree. His performance is an example of the ultimate creation, the true definition of acting, and I can't think of a better tribute or legacy to leave than an actor at his best, doing what he loves, and doing it brilliantly.

Retraction, 8/7/08: The only other performance that equals Ledger's this year is of course Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Please see my review for more details.

Also: I highly recommend seeing The Dark Knight via IMAX.


Bookhouse said...

I am impressed you've seen it already. I am, as always, forced to wait, hoping to not have too much spoiled.

Your assessment of Batman is very good by the way, very much along the lines of the innumerable conversations I've had on the matter.

Bookhouse said...

In short, so good. The longer pontification:

Scrapping out a spoiler free weekend to reach my sunday showing, I am slowly coming to a boil on this movie. It is, for me in the end, simply mesmerizing.

Breaking it all down, it is the overall intelligence of the script, of the actors, and of the characters that most completes this. And of course, Health is the paragon amongst them all.

While this was no doubt a well-written, smart script, what he did, the combination of intelligence and insanity he crafted for this film and his presentation of it make him truly terrifying. He took the adage, a fine line between genius and insanity, and placed his character firmly on the far side of that field.

He emerged early on, not just as a worthy foe for the Dark Knight, but an enemy whose defeat was almost surprising. Ledger's Joker was at every turn the superior, using insight filtered through the prism of his madness to undo every attempt on the part of the heroes.

In that next to last scene, when he tells Batman the nature and future of their relationship, there is such a revelation of his dark and terrible knowledge, it solidifies how haunting this performance will be.

Tom said...

I must disagree...

I didn't really find Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker as deserving of the universal praise. The role is good but is it great? Heath Ledger plays a homicidal maniac: the diabolical schemes of this character are far-fetched, this is a foil to a superhero after all... What depth of artistry or level of realism can an actor reach to mark greatness? If playing a cartoon to a 'T' is a benchmark for greatness then Cate Blanchett should win an Oscar for her role in the latest Indiana Jones movie. As great and fun as she was in that role, the proposition is still absurd. (For the record, the movie's own Christian Bale was more successful in playing a homicidal maniac in 'American Psycho'.)

So what is the big deal about Heath? Sure, he has great one-liners. But isn't that the result of the script writing and not necessarily owing to the actor? I, for one, suggest that Heath was tapping into the pathos of Krusty the Klown.

The focus on the purported greatness of Heath's portrayal of the Joker hides the fact that this newest Batman movie is simply not that good. This installment pales in comparison to 'Batman Begins,' which reinvented the superhero in plausible realism. Here are the major flaws of this new installment: the plot is tedious; the movie is edited haphazardly (the first third of the movie was a blur of rushed scenes); and the action sequences are not all that interesting. For a very long movie, there's a whole lotta nothing in the end.

This Heath-Joker mania reminds me of the hoopla behind 'The Crow' following Brandon Lee's untimely death prior to that movie's release. (Remember that?) Just like before, after the celebrity storm dies down, people will start to notice that this movie isn't all that successful as art or even as entertainment.

Somehow I think that Heath would have been embarrassed by all the attention that has been drawn to his life and role.

And concerning this effusive praise: 'It has been years since I've seen any actor commit to a role so purely and with such energy that it takes the breath away from the audience, whose reaction is littered with bouts of nervous laughter...'

Um, remember Daniel Day Lewis' performance from just last year? How quickly we forget and move on to the next hype.

Snobber said...

i'm sticking to my guns, i do think heath's performance was incredible, mainly for its energy, not necessarily its originality.

and, to be clear, i never said i was a huge fan of the entire film.

also: just because heath might be embarrassed because we're all so jazzed over him doesn't mean it lessens the performance. i think it's impossible that his death wouldn't effect the perception of the film, so i'm working off that assumption.

and finally, yes, i should have made a shout-out to daniel day. thank you for reminding me.

tom said...

You're absolutely correct in seeing that the real-life death of the actor cannot be separated from our perception of the film.

But I found it disturbing that from the very moment that the Joker appears, the audience was rapt with equal measure of adulation and titillation. Yes, the role was fun and well-executed (just not great, in my opinion) but I wondered if we were really watching the same film. I was watching a film... others seemed to be watching segments from TMZ or Access Hollywood.

Furthermore, I went to see 'the' Batman story (his conflicts, his toys, his cunning) and not a freak show that suspended all logic and rationality for cheap thrills. It was called 'The Dark Knight' and not 'Batman vs. the Joker', after all.

That's my beef, not necessarily with your ode or with your understanding of the film.

I, for one, think that David Denby got it right in his New Yorker review...

Bookhouse said...

Doesn't it speak to the ingenuity and affect of the performance Ledger gave that people did respond with rapt " adulation and titillation."

I do not find the roles Lewis and Ledger played to be quite comparable. Day Lewis's plainview was a human monster, the kind I envision running Enron and Halliburton. Cross his path, attempt to deny him that which he covets, and rue the day. Daniel Plainview would have led a quiet existence alone in the wilderness, and perhaps should have. He felt people were inflicted upon him, and lashed out in turn.

This Joker was outwardly malevolent, and highly concerned with the nature of the rest of the populace. Ledger's Joker was of such interest in my opinion because he needed to inflict his dark and terrible brilliance upon people. He sees the world as needing to be taught a lesson he alone is qualified to teach. In that he becomes more akin to the extremists of our world today. There is nothing he wants. There is nothing which can ultimately satisfy him, nothing which will make him relent, not logic or reason that can appease him.

Ledger I think in the end did what all actor's strive to do: he stole the show.

Strangely, the little birdies have been mentioning the first person that has been approached about playing a villain in the follow-up to The Dark Knight is Daniel Day Lewis.

tom said...

My point was to rebut Ms. D's claim that it had been years since she'd seen a performance so... reminding her that Mr. Lewis' performance was less than a year old. I made no attempt to compare the role of the Joker with Daniel Plainview on symbolic grounds.

'Adulation and titillation' are not necessary good responses, especially if they are devoid of intelligent reasoning. A reasonable listener does not respond to Beethoven's 9th Symphony by exclaiming, 'Man, I was titillated by the crescendos!'

And do all actors strive to 'steal the show'? If this were the truth, then Robin Williams is the greatest actor of all time.

Patrisha said...

hey. i wish you would continue to post.

Paul Pincus said...

i loved it.

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