Going Batty

Propelled by Heath Ledger's spectacular, disturbing turn as The Joker, 'The Dark Knight' is a grand theatrical experience

Heath Ledger as The Joker in 'Batman: The Dark Knight'
Heath Ledger as The Joker in ‘Batman: The Dark Knight’

The answer is yes. Heath Ledger is that good as The Joker. Would his performance still garner the same Oscar buzz had his untimely death not come before the movie was released? Possibly not, but another nomination for the little gold statue wouldn’t have been outside the realm of possibility, either.

It’s so fitting that ”dark” features prominently in the movie’s title because The Dark Knight is indeed a macabre look into the disintegration of a city and the forces at play that capitalize on this destruction. In the troubled Gotham City, Batman (Christian Bale) is at once feared and needed — just one of the many dichotomies that render the film in two.

As promised in the final moments of Batman Begins, the 2005 film that rebooted the Batman franchise, this time the villain is The Joker and, unlike Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, there’s no back story to explain the origins of the grinning scoundrel. He just appears. Trust me when I say that his entrance is eye-popping. It doesn’t take more than a minute to establish just how sick and twisted The Joker really is — and it’s fantastic.

Back in Batman’s corner are Bruce Wayne’s trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine), gadget supplier Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), and the one trusted cop on the Gotham City force, Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman). The three try to form some sort of moral compass for Bruce/Batman, but as their goals are often differing, more than once they contradict each other, leading to more conflict than resolution for the Caped Crusader.

Also in the wings to tug at the heartstrings is childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her new love, district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Anyone with a passing knowledge of the Batman stories knows exactly where this one is headed, and it’s nowhere good.

Director Christopher Nolan has created a captivating, visually engaging, edge-of-your-seat film that wastes little time in getting to the action. It also assumes that you just saw Batman Begins again since there’s no time wasted on catching you up.

Ledger is truly fantastic as The Joker. While gushing over his performance might seem like hyperbole, in most cases it’s not. Whereas Jack Nicholson’s Joker was clearly insane, Ledger’s Joker is an enigma. He’s creepy, disgusting and altogether human. Whether it’s the little ticks that brand him or the depraved actions that are beyond horrific, it’s all so transfixing that it’s a shame when you have to head back to the Batcave to catch up with the good guys.

Compared to Ledger, or virtually any of the other big names in the film, Bale gives the least compelling performance. He’s pretty and plastic — his billionaire playboy routine is just about the only thing he really pulls off. The emotions inside remain a little too bottled — even when they could be overflowing. That’s not asking for melodrama, just a little more drama. Not to mention his Batman voice is low and grating to the point of distraction.

Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes in this film — a fortunate replacement, since Gyllenhaal has the depth it takes to portray Rachel in The Dark Knight. Holmes is a puddle compared to Gyllenhaal’s pool of talent and the new Rachel is a huge improvement over the original.

THE DARK KNIGHT
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Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger
Rated R
152 Minutes
Area Theaters

Going through the most transformative scenes during the film, Eckhart as Dent/Two-Face walks a fine balance between an uneven performance and the shifting balance between his good and evil sides. Ultimately, the special effects used to create Two-Face are so overdone it becomes a distraction and his acting is lost behind gristle and tendons.

It’s Oldman who really earns recognition behind Ledger for the strongest performance in the film. The conflicts he endures are raw and real. He deserves high praise for his earnest portrayal of a police officer unwilling to bend.

Like Dent and the many other characters dealing with the dueling sides of their lives, the film has two distinct halves as well. Unfortunately, it’s the second half that is a touch too long. The Joker employs one of the oldest psychological experiments in the book, which ends up feeling a little too Psych 101 for an otherwise original and enthralling film.

The Dark Knight is a truly grand theatrical experience. Even without Ledger’s death, it’s a wonderful film that shouldn’t be missed. That it’s Ledger’s final performance is just all the more reason to pay tribute and recognize the potential that was lost.