This Joker Holds All the Cards

Batman (Christian Bale) squares off against a vicious criminal known as The Joker (Heath Ledger) in this sequel to "Batman Begins." Video by Warner Bros.
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

Handsome is as handsome doesn't in "The Dark Knight." Of the three male lookers who dominate it, who would have guessed that the one with his face hidden behind twisted clown makeup, whose perfect features and fair brow are not glimpsed even once, would prove the most memorable?

This is not because Heath Ledger died in January, though that event does perhaps add some otherwise unearned melancholy to the film. It's because Ledger's performance is so intense and so lasting; it's because despite the insane mask, it's a subtle, nuanced piece of acting so powerful it banishes all memories of the handsome Aussie behind it. The makeup seems to have liberated him: He's supple of body, expressive with only his eyes, and his voice has undulations of irony and mockery and psychopathology to it. He's an essay -- in a way he's never before been, playing straight-faced characters -- in pure charisma.

The performance is also the most interesting thing in the film, and when the Joker is absent, "The Dark Knight" loses most of its energy and dynamism and becomes nothing but a pretty-boy face-off between Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart.

It's too bad, because the movie begins and plays for a long time with a great deal of intensity, particularly as it pits the bat guy against the smiler. It begins with bangs, lots of them. A bank job, very violent (you think you're in a remake of "Heat") transpires, in which a squad of clown-masked pros takes down what is quickly revealed to be a Mafia operation, overloaded with unreported cash.

But even as the bank robbers are bringing off their meticulous plans, they are being hunted: That's because one of them, under his clown mask, is wearing clown makeup. The Joker is not merely robbing the bank but shedding excess colleagues, all while keeping up a kinky patter that becomes his signature. It's kind of a Molly Bloom soliloquy from a demented jester in a sort of self-consciously ironic mode. He seems aware that his spoken narration is itself a higher kind of performance art, even if it's for an audience of one, himself.

And where is Batman while all of this mayhem is being committed? Off somewhere brooding, because nobody broods better than Christian Bale. As Batman, Bale's not bad. He's got the dreary role of being the unmovable baseline against which all others contrast themselves, a hopeless situation. By doing next to nothing, he does a lot.

He's surprisingly passive in the early going, though what's really going on is that Christopher Nolan, the director, franchise-holder (he did "Batman Begins") and writer (along with brother Jonathan Nolan), is giving the Joker plenty of time to establish his bona fides. It's worth the ticket price to watch the Joker explain to the mob bosses that he's the new big guy in town, even while he's giving them a brief autobiography to explain his particular brand of psychopathic malfeasance. He makes a pencil disappear in a most unusual manner, and then explains to them all why his dad once said to him, "Son, why so serious?," thus setting him off on a lifetime of smiles.

Again, it can't be said too often that even against such a charisma blaster as Eric Roberts (as crime lord Sal Maroni), Ledger rules. He's mesmerizing, yet a little sad, for Ledger has the skill to show us the monster and at the same time the terrified child who grew to be a monster because he had no choice.

I was pretty much just settling in at this point to watching Bale's morose elegance go charisma-to-charisma against Ledger's loony radiance. What fun. But the Nolan brothers McComplicate things up all Mcfusingly when they introduce the third element.

This is the Nordic-looking Eckhart, who's not only new D.A. Harvey Dent and a super-villain in the making, but also the beau of Batman's chum and lost heart, Rachel Dawes, who was played in "Batman Begins" by Katie Holmes and here by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal is perhaps too ironic for the Batman world. With those perpetually knowing eyes, she doesn't really fit. She has too many dimensions, is too real-worldy -- her Rachel Dawes seems like the kind of girl who got straight A's but also had the lead in the musical, went to Radcliffe and ended up in New York, doing something "interesting." Holmes, much more limited and perhaps a bit more beautiful, was better cast.

In any event, what follows is a series of triangular competitions: There's the one between friendly rivals Batman and Dent for the heart of Dawes; meanwhile the Joker is playing the crime lords against the police. In a deeper sense, the real three-way is between the law, the criminals and the anarchy that the Joker represents -- that is, the general destruction of the artificial edifice known as civilization, leaving man to his most savage impulses.

You keep waiting for the movie to clarify, to settle down to its archetypal purity: icon of psychotic evil against icon of neurotic good. Music by Wagner in his "Götterdämmerung" mood, screenplay by Nietzsche, with additional lines by Babaloo Mandel. Oh, what a great big movie wallow, what a transformational blast of cine-pleasure.

It never quite arrives. Toward the end, the Dent subplot takes over, primarily as a vehicle to show off some incredible makeup on Harv and explain who he'll be in further installments, whether Eckhart plays him or not (Tommy Lee Jones played him in an earlier Batman sequence).

Yes, Batty and Laugher do go at it, against a situation engineered by the Joker: two ferries, one full of criminals, the other of normal citizens, are rigged to explode, each with a detonator to light off the other -- the question being, who among us, the worst or the best, will commit multiple murder in order to survive? But the big fight is not nearly as mythic as it should have been, giving the movie an ending that felt more anti- than climactic.

The film's mistake is Eckhart as Dent. This is a role that calls for more gift than Eckhart, in other circumstances an honest journeyman, possesses. He's got to show a love and an idealism so stout they can stand against the vilest villainy yet so fragile they can shatter into evil at a single catastrophic loss. It's not in him to show a range of contradictions like this, and the character -- as written by the Nolans -- is beyond demonstrating as much, either. So the whole subplot about Dent is mostly just fury and sound, signifying nothing except someone's idea that a summer blockbuster has to be 2 1/2 hours long and therefore must be chock-full of not very compelling subplots to swell it up to epic length if not quality.

The effects and stunts are first-rate, though for big bangs, the opening bank robbery was probably the most powerfully done. Batman's ability to ride the thermal columns between Gotham shafts downward to safety is very cool. So is the magical way the Batcar becomes a motorcycle with the purring of some electric gizmos, and a lot of the time this Batman seems more like Marlon Brando in "The Wild One" than anyone named Keaton, Kilmer or Clooney who came before.

The Dark Knight (152 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mayhem, menace and intense sequences of violence.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company