The Joker is the role of a lifetime that Heath Ledger, against all expectations, was perfect for. With all the emotional tributes and eulogies that followed his unexpected death, you may have started to wonder if he deserved all the attention-- and you may now put those doubts to rest. That guy had talent, and The Dark Knight is his triumphant last hurrah.
The Joker is the best thing in the movie. Whenever he's onscreen you're mesmerized by his presence, and whenever he's offscreen you're wondering what that guy is up to. It's also a credit to skillful direction of Christopher Nolan-- who, to my knowledge, has yet to make a movie that's not some kind of masterpiece-- that the movie takes such an outlandish villain and keeps things both engaging and believable, grounded in the world that we live in and identify with.
And believability is an important, essential trait! It's what made Batman Begins such a sweeping upheaval. It makes all other superhero movies look almost silly by comparison-- especially the old Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher line of Batman films. It branches boldly away from the old guard of comic book films, taking its superhero and convincing us that while comic books are where superheroes are born, film is where they thrive.
The script is serious to a fault, however, at times sucking some of the joy out of sequences that a typical superhero film would have relished in. But that's the direction this movie has chosen for itself, and it does it with class. Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman-- all give measured, perhaps understated performances that breathe depth into the world.
But it's the Joker who stops the show, and I would really like to know how Heath Ledger fit into the equation: was he cast for his ability to portray such a haunting villain, or did his brilliance suddenly shine forth when the cameras started rolling? He doesn't just breath life into the role, he disappears into it-- and I don't mean simply behind the makeup. I couldn't recognize the gay cowboy in there even if I tried. There's a genuine fear and exhilaration he brings to his scenes, ensuring he'll live on in our memories long after his name rolls on the credits for the last time.
Another installment of my should-have-posted-this-a-week-ago series.