Adieu: Ledger in The Dark Knight

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Under normal circumstances, there is no power on Earth that could have induced me to sit through a Batman movie. Which isn’t to say I haven’t seen one before. In the summer of 1992, an estranged friend and I briefly reunited. She and I had been film-going companions in earlier times, and so it seemed natural that we should go to a movie that afternoon. But finding something I’d be willing to take in, given the paucity of choices a Columbia, South Carolina multiplex presented us with, was, as you’d well imagine, difficult. For reasons of compromise I no longer recall, Mary Kaye (that was her name) and I ended up at Cool World, which neither of us wanted to go into, and sure enough, after a few minutes of bad animation and worse acting from Brad Pitt, we were roaming the low-lit corridors of the multiplex, peeking in doors of other screening rooms, hoping not to get caught by an usher, as we searched for something, anything less terrible to occupy our time. I had been adamant that we would not see Batman Returns, but standing in the doorframe, I found the wintry visual palette appealing, and as the film had just begun, in we went to watch Michelle Pfeiffer transform herself into Catwoman and some actor (was it Danny DeVito or Christopher Walken?) play the Penguin. All in all, it proved itself a fairly… painless experience.

But, as I began to say, I would not, in my disdain for comic books (and for the adults who read them), have conceivably had any interest in The Dark Knight. Last fall, when I learned that Heath Ledger had been cast as the Joker, my first thought was—why? Why would an actor of his prodigious gifts go slumming? I found his choice of the role a downer; I hoped that he wasn’t just going to do flavorless commercial studio work for the bigger paychecks from there on out, that he would migrate back to real acting. And I thought no more about it, until January 22, 2008.

The tragedy of Ledger’s early death, what Todd Haynes has so aptly called an “inconceivable absence,” confers on The Dark Knight a stature that the movie doesn’t actually deserve. I’m sure there will be many viewers who, like me, feel compelled to see it, compelled in a way they wouldn’t be if Ledger were alive and well. This accidental—and unlikely—swansong had me, after the entirety of its 152 minutes had rolled by, still wondering why Ledger wanted to do this.

Even accepting (or trying to accept) The Dark Knight on “comic book terms,” whatever those might be, the movie would still be awful. There’s lots of violence, but none of it connects to anything, unless corporate nihilism counts, yet it’s all too bland to be genuinely offensive. Despite the assorted bludgeonings, point-blank shootings, and knifings almost constantly being displayed, intimated, or talked about in precise detail, there isn’t a drop of blood to be seen. Just as curious, and as calculated, no one swears in this movie. Cops, detectives, and criminals are omnipresent (The Dark Knight’s cast is a veritable multicultural rainbow of potential victims and guilty crud—in fact, if you aren’t one or the other, this movie has no place for you). However, you won’t hear any of these lawbreakers or enforcers saying, “Fuck.” Their tongues have been sterilized so that (one presumes) all-American families can enjoy a mortally wounded banker’s dying soliloquy, just before an explosive device is placed in his mouth, without having their Christian ears assailed by profanity. No bloodshed, no cursing, and, what’s even more suspect, no outrage either. The director Christopher Nolan and his co-screenwriting brother Jonathan Nolan just assume and take on faith (very bad faith) that we, as spectators, feel such ennui toward catastrophic violence that even a scenario as morally wretched as the Joker’s teasing promise to assassinate Gotham City’s Hispanic mayor, in the midst of an elaborate funeral parade (complete with bagpipers) for a black police commissioner, feels weightless. The Nolans’ doomy, nightmare fantasies have no tingle—and the filmmaking sibs indiscriminately unfurl set-pieces of gloom one after another, as if off a conveyor belt.

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A crime thriller, which I take it The Dark Knight aims to be, with or without a caped superhero, needs something more substantial to go on than overturned police cars. Nolan doesn’t know how to create suspense; based on what I’ve seen here, I doubt it occurs to him that he ought to have tried. How much of an incoherent mess does Nolan make? After prepping and priming us for Mayor Garcia’s demise, the scene climaxes with another official taking the hit; there’s no mention of whether Garcia survived or perished. Perhaps an hour goes by. Then he shows up for a few seconds to no real consequence—the movie skirts both his survival and his all-too-recent status as a target. At this point, if I hadn’t realized it already, it’s apparent that there’s nothing going on inside this dung heap of explosions. Nothing’s ultimately at stake in these stretched-out skits that, in dialogue and temperament, recall (none too fondly) the Irwin Allen productions of the 1970s. The most slovenly disingenuous of these involves two competing ferryboats of passengers, one consisting of orange-uniformed prisoners, the other a lifeboat of disgruntled NPR-liberals. One boat will be blown up, the other will survive (at least until the next jerry-rigged horror), and the passengers themselves must decide, so of course they put the matter to a vote, which takes a good amount of screen time to tally. This may be the worst directed “major” motion picture to swim into my ken in an extraordinarily long while. Nolan can’t write; he can’t establish what’s supposedly occurring in a scene; and he has no cinematic eye—his film is rife with “impressive” visual effects that undoubtedly required rigorous technical skill, but that in his ill-timing fail to result in excitement or wonder. The lone thrilling optical illusion occurs only a minute or two in; as a prelude to the bank heist, two robbers in clown make-up slide between skyscrapers on a thin wire hoisted across. Looking down the length of the Boeing IMAX screen at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, at the ground “beneath,” I could feel that desired momentary twinge of vertigo shaking up my senses.

Otherwise, everything about this Warner Bros. spectacle reinforces why I spend much of my movie-going at so-called “art films,” though most of those aren’t very good, either. Memento, for one, while we’re on the subject of Christopher Nolan’s shortcomings, I found totally worthless.

One more example of the big-time Nolan’s squeaky-clean ineptitude: The movie has a Hong Kong subplot that culminates, after much zigzagging between HK and Gotham, with a corrupt corporate executive being hauled back to the states by Batman (Christian Bale), then kidnapped by the Joker, who sits with him on top of an enormous pile of money the Joker stole from a bank in the opening sequence. Ledger’s Joker slides down to the bottom, douses the cash with gasoline, and there isn’t so much as a cut from Nolan’s camera back up to the man who’s going to be burned alive. No reaction shot, no futile attempt at escape, not even an off-camera scream, lest we be made aware a life is being taken. The Dark Knight, with its sanitized, hollowed-out approach to the most outré violence, would seem to be the movie that Bush’s Abu Ghraib America deserves.

But what about Ledger’s performance? Is he as good in this role as the advance drumbeats and critical hosannas would indicate? Regretfully, I do not concur. I loved Ledger’s earlier work, and I mourned him, but in my view, the Oscar talk circling ‘round amounts to no more than wishful thinking and white male conservative guilt—the guilt of a deeply homophobic mainstream press and the Academy that would not honor him for Brokeback Mountain. Now, of course, as the Joker, a murderous psychotic, he’s someone the flacks can all relate to, but his work in The Dark Knight is far from extraordinary.

Unusual for Ledger, he approaches the character externally instead of internally. As the Nolans’ script gave Ledger very little to work with, it is the make-up artist who created a character for him to play. The expressionistic contortion of the Joker’s red smear of a mouth, with its horrifying stab wounds against a visage of white greasepaint, implies a history that the Nolans leave out. Even the most fantastical villain, nonetheless, needs some kind of psychological underpinnings. Without them, Ledger hits the same note over and over again. Despite claims that his conception would differ vastly from Jack Nicholson’s, I, without virtue of having seen the 1989 movie, can see bits of Nicholsonian manic glee cropping up in Ledger, albeit filtered through the strains of Johnny Depp’s high-pitched Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s repulsive Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Ledger’s Joker has more vocal range than Depp’s Wonka, yet Ledger finds no color in the upper register. His voice will go way up high, then plummet way down deep, but nothing about the character expands or changes. It’s clear to me that Ledger’s soul wasn’t in this—his heart certainly wasn’t. And it’s jarring to see the finest actor of his generation, in his last complete film, just marking time. Comparisons have been made to A Clockwork Orange, but these are as off-base as the rest of the hoopla. Ledger’s Joker lacks the scale and intensity of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex the Droog, and Kubrick’s 1971 film, despite its flaws, was a genuine vision of… something, to be argued and interpreted, not merely an overpriced contraption that exists solely to rake in cash. When the Joker taunts and tortures his victims, such as in the video footage of a blubbering Batman imitator about to go under, the effect manages to be unpleasant, though it isn’t the sort of searing, transgressive flight that Nolan, in his PG-13 fence-straddling, perhaps strove for.

“Do you want to know why I use a knife?” the Joker, in custody at a police station, asks a cop. This is probably Ledger’s one truly interesting scene. Sitting perfectly still, he explains that guns are too fast, that with a slower method of being killed, “In their last moments, people show you what they’re really like.” Baiting the cop further about dead policemen, the Joker ventures, “Would you like to know which of them were cowards?” This is one of the few moments that punctures through the movie’s flat-footedness; it just isn’t enough to compensate, though, for the pseudo-ironic, fuddy-duddy lines the actors have to deliver the rest of the time, i.e., “What doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger” or “What’s the difference between you and me?” “I’m not wearing hockey pants,” etc, etc.

And so, it’s a little sad to leave Ledger in this surrounding.

It’s Aaron Eckhart who gives the movie’s best performance. A couple of acquaintances I’ve mentioned this to didn’t want to hear it, and quite possibly I wouldn’t have wanted to hear it either.

Lastly, I’ll say this re Christian Bale in the nominal leading role of the caped crusader/millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. He’s a disaster. I’ve enjoyed Bale’s work on those occasions when he plays a real human being, as in The New World and I’m Not There (also featuring a fine turn from Heath Ledger). But being, or trying to be, a tough, macho guy is so far outside the realm of Bale’s expertise, you wonder, other than the allure of dollar signs, why he even tries. He looks absurd in his bulky leather Bat-outfit, yet sans costume, and into Wayne’s pinstriped suits, Bale appears equally ridiculous. Never one to be traditionally handsome, Bale unaccountably insists on taking roles where what’s unusual or distinctive about him gets airbrushed or sandpapered away. No matter how many excursions to the gym Bale goes on, there are certain strengths of personality than an altered physique can’t entirely disguise. He’s never going to be convincing in a conventional role the way a conventional actor would be; that Bale never once indicates to us that he’s having a good time with The Dark Knight’s phony apocalypse or smothered attempts at Pop Art humor pretty much gives the show away. In the majority of his scenes as Bruce Wayne, Bale gets caught opposite the effortless natural ease of Michael Caine, as his manservant Alfred. If ever there were an actor you wouldn’t want to be standing next to as you’re faking it, Caine is it. – NPT

July 18, 2008

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