Bat and Clown
Ledger’s Joker completes Nolan’s second bat-film
by Molly Templeton
THE DARK KNIGHT: Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan; story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Music, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. Cinematography, Wally Pfister. Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008. PG-13. 152 min.
|Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight
In 2005, Batman didn’t just begin, as Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins had it. He was reborn, reshaped, stripped down from his previous cinematic incarnation. Nolan re-emphasized the grief and fear that created the character in the mind of his (relatively) ordinary alter ego, Bruce Wayne. Batman saved Bruce, and then he saved Gotham — from the machinations of the League of Shadows, and maybe from itself. But Gotham still needs saving. At the end of Begins, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), the most practical and weary of Batman’s friends and acquaintances, raised the fear of escalation, wondering what Gotham’s criminals would do now that a vigilante crime-fighter had risen in their midst. Smart guy, that Gordon.
The Dark Knight begins with the character to whom it more than half belongs: the Joker (Heath Ledger). In a bank robbery scene, the film gradually, slyly reveals the man under the mask as character and motivator, plot device and momentum. Strip the Joker from the film, and you’re left with a passel of cranky mobsters (notably Eric Roberts’ Salvatore Maroni) and a complicated love triangle composed of Bruce (Christian Bale, solid as always), his childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, nicely re-placing Katie Holmes) and Gotham’s new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Dent is Gotham’s white knight, its right hand of the law; he’s a firm believer in justice and in doing things the right way, but he leaves little to chance where his own life is concerned.
Nor does the Joker leave much to chance, despite his disdain for plans and schemers. It’s orchestrated chaos, designed to create fear and havoc, and he’s really, really good at it. And Ledger, in his last completed role, is beyond really, really good. Grinning, almost limping, licking his lips until it’s unbearable, leering, eyes darting endlessly as if looking for something in every corner, Ledger’s Joker is an evil genius draped in the chaos he claims to represent. He has no origin, no name, no home, no ulterior motive. “Nothing in his pockets but knives and lint,” says Gordon of the man in the purple suit. The Joker makes a joke of Batman’s very existence; he too is an anonymous, unknowable creature applying his own morality to the city. When the clown tells the bat, “You complete me,” he’s not entirely kidding; one wouldn’t exist without the other.
But one lurks high above the city, in Bruce Wayne’s penthouse or on the edge of the Sears Tower (Gotham is very recognizably Chicago), while the other stumbles through Gotham’s underbelly, making it, and much of the film, his own. As it progresses between chase scenes and explosions, deaths and repercussions, The Dark Knight sets Batman apart, giving him — through the Joker’s machinations — choices that are hardly choices at all: Which captive will he save? To what lengths will he go to stop the madman? To what principles will he, when pushed, hold most closely? In a sense, if Batman Begins was the bat’s creation, The Dark Knight is his adolescence. He’s not yet fully formed, not as sure where his lines are as he may think he is, still relying on his father figures (Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox and Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth) to catch him when he starts to go over the edge.
In the end, Nolan seems to give his audience, like his hero, a terrible choice: truth or hope? But like Harvey Dent’s black and white vision — “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” — it’s an oversimplification. Dent’s dichotomy and the Joker’s influence lead The Dark Knight to its close, but it’s a theme from Begins that resonates at the end, as Batman tears off into the night: “Why do we fall, Bruce?” Thomas Wayne asked his son. “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
The Dark Knight is now playing at Cinemark and VRC Stadium 15.