From August 6, 2008: Why so seriously unfocused?

On the John presents…

A day at the pictures: The Dark Knight

Completed August 6, 2008

Heath Ledger definitely delivered in The Dark Knight. But what, exactly?
Heath Ledger definitely delivered in The Dark Knight. But what, exactly?

Ever take a blurry picture of a person? Show that picture to someone else and you’re liable to preface it: “It doesn’t really look like him. It’s a bad picture.” This is not a claim that the picture is not of that person. Obviously at that exact moment using that exact tool, that was exactly how the person looked. But that is not good enough. A photograph is expected to capture an “accurate” image of a person, a visual representation that best matches your own idea of what that person “really” looks like. In that respect, it is reasonable to say that a blurry picture does not look like its subject because it fails to match your reality of that person. And this is how I feel about Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight, why I left the movie telling friends “I don’t know if he was good. I couldn’t tell what he was doing.”

He was captivating. Of that much I’m sure. Every time Ledger appeared on screen as the Joker, I was giddy. Not just because of my pre-show anticipation, but because Ledger was doing…something. I just couldn’t be totally sure what that something was. Was he playing crazy? Was he playing smart disguised as crazy? Did he murder out of ruthlessness, calculation, desperation? Was he really interested in proving a point about human nature or was that just an excuse to blow stuff up?

It's hard not to enjoy Heath Ledger singing on the bleachers.
It’s hard not to enjoy Heath Ledger singing on the bleachers.

Obviously Ledger is a very talented actor. The first hint of that came in 10 Things I Hate About You, not because chicks thought he was hot, but because guys were borderline embarrassed to admit that the hunky centerpiece of a chick flick could be charming and funny and appealing and cool. And obviously this Joker is an original loony toon; Ledger did quite clearly create him. But any actor worth his socks can create surface, particularly the surface of an Oscar-style look-at-me role, as in: Look at me! I’m the serial killer! The cripple! The famous person! The junkie! Ledger’s got the talk, the walk, the twitches, the voice, the tongue. He swung for the fences, took his trot round the bases, touched home, but did he actually connect? He did something crazy—there it was on screen…craziness—but did he create an actual person? Did he create something truthful? That’s what I don’t know.

I left the theater disappointed. The whole second half of the story was sloppy and unfocused, as were many of the fight scenes down the stretch. Nolan and his team shot and cut the flick in a way that made it very difficult to see the action, not in a Platoon we’re-at-war-and-war-is-confusing way, but in a Dark Knight wait!-who-is-the-hell-is-that-guy? way. I dig that there should be chaos, but there was chaos in the terrific opening bank scene. Despite the masks, the disguised identities, and the anarchy of killing the man in front of you to eliminate him from the prize money, I always knew what was happening, what was at stake, who was opposing who. Curiously, when we finally got a look at Ledger’s face, it was a weak entrance. The shot was unfocused, his head unclear in the frame. Was there a classic, perfectly written and directed Joker scene in this movie? Not the jail cell. Not the Harvey Dent-party intrusion. Maybe the pencil scene, maybe the drag at the hospital scene, but nothing as definitive and focused as Anton Chigurh’s coin toss or Hannibal Lector’s story about the census taker.

I do not feel comfortable analyzing or evaluating Ledger’s performance until I have seen The Dark Knight at least once more. My guess is that my issues with the story will remain while my understanding and appreciation of what Ledger was doing will sharpen. In the meantime, I have not been able to keep myself from trying to understand Ledger and his Joker through the prism of other performances. As such, I’ve identified four that seem particularly relevant.


"Wait'll they get-a load-a me."
“Wait’ll they get a load-a me.”

When Ledger’s casting was announced, the first question on the minds of most filmgoers was: “Will he outdo Nicholson?” Initially, this suggestion seemed absurd, the kind of ADD-riddled, whatever-is-now-is-best analysis that has become standard. Nicholson was incredible in the role, full of memorable lines (“Mirror!” “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”), and perfect scenes (the art museum, the hand buzzer, the parade). And as much as he was “Nicholson as Joker,” he was legitimately crazy and frightening. No way Ledger would be better than Jack…

…but the legitimacy of the comparison intensified as stills and trailers surfaced, and we got a chance to see just how un-Ledgerlike the actor had become, how he had created something that looked and sounded and acted totally different than any other Joker we had seen. By the time I was heading into the theater, I was convinced that Ledger would make Nicholson look like a cartoon. His dripping, ugly makeup was just the starter: Nicholson really did seem like “Nicholson as Joker” while Ledger just seemed like “The Joker.” But that is part of the brilliance of Nicholson’s career: he nearly always seems like “Nicholson as character,” even though R.P. McMurphy is totally different from Jake Gittes is totally different from Col. Nathan R. Jessup is totally different from Jack Torrance is totally different from Melvin Udall.

Additionally, Nicholson’s Joker did not suffer from the blurry-photograph-syndrome. Burton’s movie, while perhaps plotted a bit obviously, was straight-forward and clear, creating chaos with the atmosphere and performances rather than from the camera work and editing. Ledger’s Joker may be more original and “realistic,” but Nicholson’s stands more clearly in my imagination, with a clean performance and a character that is viewed through a coherent story.

MALCOLM MCDOWELL as ALEX in A Clockwork Orange

"There was me. Tha'is Alex."
“There was me. Tha’is Alex.”

I read that Ledger drew inspiration from Malcolm McDowell’s Alex, but even if I hadn’t I would have likely made the connection. Granted, Alex is only comparable during the picture’s first portion, and only parts at that (his scenes at home “out of costume” don’t really apply), but there’s more than enough in those first twenty-five minutes to see the similarities. Both men are killers and chaos-creators who engage in mayhem out of boredom, self-appointed divine right, and a sense of moral outrage (“One thing I could never stand was to see a filthy, dirty old drunky howling away at the filthy songs of his fathers.” “I’ll show you: when the chips are down, these civilized people will eat each other.”) This being a Kubrick movie, it is shot and cut beautifully and clearly. The action is chaotic but clear, and we can see that McDowell has control over Alex, that there is a precision to Alex even when he is at his most sadistic. Maybe that is the case for Ledger and the Joker; I just can’t speak to it as of yet.

JAVIER BARDEM as ANTON CHIGURH in No Country for Old Men

"I know something better. I know where it's going to be."
“I know something better. I know where it’s going to be.”

Some have claimed that Ledger’s Joker is the greatest screen villain of all time, but I’m not even convinced that he is the greatest screen villain of the past two years. As for right now, that distinction goes to Javier Bardem’s cattle gun-toting, coin-tossing angel of death, Anton Chigurh. Chigurh is no more or less realistic than the Joker, and is provided with even less backstory and psychological depth. But as shot by Roger Deakins, as written, directed, and edited by the Coens, and as played by Bardem, Chigurh takes on the feeling of a real person. Can the same be said for the Joker? Bardem did not win the Oscar because he played crazy killer. He won because he made crazy killer real. The voice, the calm, the word choice, the haircut, all was done in the name of character and story. From the first time I saw it, I could see that Bardem had “disappeared into the character,” that Chigurh had taken on a reality beyond Bardem but that Bardem had indeed made very specific choices as an actor in order to create that specific killer. He was given perfectly crafted scenes that helped define both the performance and the character. Ledger and his Joker were not as fortunate.

HEATH LEDGER as ENNIS DEL MAR in Brokeback Mountain

“There ain’t no reins on this one.”

Because of The Dark Knight’s popularity, the character’s pre-established identity, the character’s extreme nature and Ledger’s death shortly after completion, the role will probably maintain its place as the actor’s most famous work, his definitive performance. But is it his best? Or did he top out three years earlier in Brokeback Mountain? The two roles could not be more different: one is frightening, obvious, bold, and connected with an original physical image, while the other is reserved, subtle, quiet, and normal looking. Ennis Del Mar is a regular person experiencing regular problems. Within the reality of each picture, we will hear about the Joker through the media but will only know Ennis’ story if we know him personally and he chooses to confide in us. Ledger lost the Oscar to a very, very good Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, a look-at-me role that Hoffman made real and true from the inside out. A wonderful, memorable, near flawless performance, but still much easier to appreciate than Ledger’s Ennis. (And I can, and do, say the exact same on all parts for the following year’s non-showdown between Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning Idi Amin and DiCaprio’s should-have-been-nominated Billy Costigan.)

Getting into a bunch of Oscar foo-foo talk is not the point here. Hoffman and Whitaker were incredible, and both were deserving of any praise they received. But while those two had the advantage of impressing audiences with voice imitations and physical transformations, Ledger and DiCaprio were acting in plain sight. It’s the same reason that it’s easier to be amazed by Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, Hanks in Philadelphia, or Bardem in No Country than it is to come away in amazement of their equally incredible co-stars Jodie Foster, Denzel, and Josh Brolin. Ledger created something remarkable in Brokeback without the aid of anything as obvious as makeup, green hair, knives, bombs, a slithering tongue, or our collective back-log of memories. Again, this does not mean that a non-showy role automatically trumps a look-at-me role, nor the other way around. It just means that before proclaiming the Joker as one of the great performances of all time, it must be weighed out against others that are in some way analogous, including what is still, at least for now, Heath Ledger’s finest moment.

Copyright 2008, jm silverstein

WRITER’S NOTE from October 17, 2009

Since my first viewing of The Dark Knight, I have since seen it twice more. Once a week later in the theatre, and once at a friend’s house. As I expected, my opinion of Ledger’s performance has gained focus, and here it is: he was marvelous. And my dislike of the film as a whole is also more clear. The style in which it was shot and cut does not appeal to me, and the dialogue is drab and vague. Ledger’s Joker is fascinating, but only due to Ledger’s performance and the costume and makeup from Lindy Hemming and John Caglione, Jr., respectively. The Joker has nothing much of interest to say, though Ledger delivers these uninteresting lines with wonderful terror. It is a terrific, terrific performance, unfortunately trapped within a brutal film.

(Of course, I am also the guy who walked out of Slumdog Millionaire and turned against Fight Club…so what do I know, right?)



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