Too long, too cluttered, too disconnected — The Dark Knight contains one artistic masterpiece. The uncanny, ultra-vibrant performance by Heath Ledger. In his feverish hands, the Joker is one of the genuinely original creations of cinema history – and yes, I have to admit, it is such an exciting, smart creation, that it justifies sitting through one of the worst-written, least comprehensible exercises in directorial egomania I can recall. Let’s just say that Dark Knight ain’t Ironman, which still retains its title as champion adult comix film in recent memory.
But back to Ledger’s performance. I was ready for over-the-top. I expected darkly probing criminal psychology writ large. But nothing prepared me to be blown away by such an intelligent collection of acting choices — choices which, sadly, indicate just how high Ledger might have soared, had he lived.
Watching the portrayal of the cocky, quirky, brilliant madman/villain, I found myself rummaging through my film memory banks. Where had I seen some of those gestures? heard that insistent cackling voice, that nuanced, soaring derangement translated into highly specific bodily gestures? Here’s what I came up with. Think about tasting a great wine, all the different elements, the spatial range and movement of flavors from front to back of the palate. Okay.
The edgy stabbing hands and shoulders are pure Danny DiVito, with some Joe Pesce thrown in. The cocky voicework moves between Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade and vintage Jack Nicholson. A few of the choice staccato mannerisms seem to have been pulled out of Brad Pitt‘s eco wacko in Twelve Monkeys. The deep center of this performance bears a lean, molten core of John Malkovich at his all-time creepiest. But ultimately the long finish of every bravura scene — stolen every single time by Ledger’s genius — is the young-to-middle-aged Marlon Brando, the Brando so achingly beautiful under his pain, so generous with his vulnerabilities, and so astonishing in his vocal range. Oh, and maybe a touch of the campy, cross-dressing Brando of Missouri Breaks, too.
Having done as much as I can do with invoking cinematic predecessors — I have to admit that Ledger’s Joker is an original creation. A Picasso moment after a long spell of predictable tropes. As you watch this performance, you’ll realize you’re watching molds being broken. Certainly you’re watching a life about to break. That, and not what happens to Bruce Wayne, is the tragedy of this film.