“The night is darkest just before the dawn,” says District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in The Dark Knight. But in director Christopher Nolan’s second installment of his stylish reinvention of the Batman saga (after 2005’s Batman Begins), the forecast for that dawn is distinctly overcast, an unpredictable tempest of insanity threatening to eclipse all that Gotham’s Caped Crusader (Christian Bale, back for his second turn, comfortable in the cowl) has accomplished in his vigilante crusade to rid the crime-riddled metropolis of its cancerous core.
VIDEO: The trailer for The Dark Knight
Worse yet, the city’s self-styled protector is the root cause of its latest, deadliest threat, a psychopathic wild card known only as the Joker (Heath Ledger), an “unstoppable force” on a collision course with Batman’s “immovable object,” yin to the Dark Knight’s yang. The Joker wouldn’t exist if not for Batman. “You and I need each other,” cackles the clown. “You complete me.”
Still, even before the appearance of the homicidal harlequin, Batman’s alter ego, billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, has begun to doubt the effectiveness of his campaign against terror. Copycats have begun to sprout up, decked out in dime-store batsuits, untrained, brandishing guns. “That’s not exactly what I had in mind when I said I wanted to inspire people,” laments Wayne to his faithful butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine, bringing a needed touch of humor).
These junior vigilantes might not subscribe to Wayne’s strict moral code, but they’re a minor annoyance compared with the Joker, a perfect foil whose strength is his utter amorality. Even before Ledger died of an accidental prescription-drug overdose in January, word of his performance had begun to spread from those who had witnessed it on set. Jack Nicholson had delivered one of his iconic performances in the 1989 film that ushered in the modern era of the Batman, but his Joker was a consummate showman, throwing a parade for the masses, entertaining them even as he unleashed a deadly poisonous gas.
When Ledger’s modern brand of maniac shows up on screen, you might not even realize you’re watching him for five minutes or so. Completely lacking in vanity, Ledger creates his finest performance as an unhinged lunatic with thinning, unwashed hair and unsettling clown make-up that, far from hiding the hideous scar tissue that forms a permanent Cheshire grin on his face, accentuates the horrors he suffered at the hands of an abusive father. Or did he mutilate himself? The story of his origin changes depending on who he’s relating it to, and the actor’s influences are just as hard to pin down. If you detect a hint of Malcolm McDowell’s anarchic Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Andy Robinson’s Scorpio Killer from Dirty Harry, or possibly even Jack Lemmon’s manic, high-registered mutterings (albeit with an added layer of black eyeshadow), you’d be underestimating Ledger’s original, fearless talent.
Batman and his chief ally, Detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), see a savior in heroic District Attorney Dent, Gotham’s White Knight, and the current boyfriend of Wayne’s lapsed inamorata, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes). Looking at a photo of Dent, Wayne concedes that “this is the face of Gotham’s future,” realizing that it may be time to hang up his cape. Unfortunately, the Joker recognizes this as well, and he’s willing to scar that face — the man and the city along with him — in Nolan’s relentlessly paced crime thriller, which pushes the limits of its PG-13 rating. (This isn’t your kids’ Batman.)
Not all is perfect. Too much time is spent setting up a third film, with the audience (and the Joker) left dangling as Dent is rushed toward his, and indeed all of Gotham’s, fate. Still, a few scars are to be expected in the grotesque face of Nolan’s batty genius.