Will Heath Ledger win a posthumous Academy Award for best supporting actor for his portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, the sixth modern Batman movie, new on DVD today from Warner Bros.? A better question is, should he?
This shouldn’t be a sympathy vote. Ledger either deserves an Oscar, or he doesn’t, and much of that entitlement may stem from your personal preference for his film. In my mind, as good as Ledger was, this role and this performance are not Oscar caliber. Like the movie, they’re too one-note. To me, far better work was done by Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, who showed layers and nuance, made me laugh out loud repeatedly (a feat) and was amazingly charismatic. But comedies get no Oscar respect, so that’s just me dreaming.
Besides, The Dark Knight wasn’t about Ledger’s acting or the Joker’s deranged, smudged “smile.” Rather, it was about action-misery.
What’s that? Well, it’s not action-adventure, where an action film is enjoyable, thrilling or regaling, but without being repellent. In the case of The Dark Knight, a PG-13 rating got slammed hard up against an R, and for almost 2 1/2 hours, the film engrossed more than entertained, punishing its audience by relentlessly killing people, torturing people, placing innocents in constant peril, blowing things up, setting fires, threatening small children in front of their mother — you name it. Sorry, but this is not well-rounded storytelling. And as impressive as it is in execution, The Dark Knight is less entertainment than an ordeal.
Such punishment comes from the film’s ceaseless cruelty, savagery and murderous bloodlust. Is there any offsetting humor, heart, romance, character development or even wit? Forget it. In fact, though I greatly admire Christian Bale as an actor, what did he do here but phone in a mindlessly guttural and growling performance as Batman, and a pretty-boy stoicism as Bruce Wayne. Despite being given two roles in effect, the guy hardly registers in either one.
Yes, Ledger is great, so that makes up for it in part. His Joker doesn’t joke, but rather makes psychopathic mayhem just to prove a point: We’re all as sick as him. Only it doesn’t quite turn out that way.
The remaining cast is largely about marquee value actors (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman) getting little to do, though the impressive Gary Oldman has a blessedly larger role as Commissioner Gordon, perhaps the most heroic man in the film. In fact, Oldman seems to have more screen time than anyone. Aaron Eckhart also is good as the handsome Harvey Dent, if not so much as the grotesque Two-face, which is more of a makeup performance than acting. And Maggie Gyllenhaal is woefully miscast as a woman who’s supposed to inspire romantic passion in him and Wayne.
So it’s easily Ledger’s picture to run away with, and run he does, eclipsing Jack Nicholson’s wacky, crazy-funny turn in the same role with the kind of tortured, twisted character to which Danny DeVito aspired as the Penguin in Batman Returns. Basically, both men respond to childhood abuse with mass murder in adulthood. Not exactly an even karmic trade, but at least you know where they’re coming from and why they’re so wicked.
But as good as Ledger is, and as powerful as The Dark Knight’s action can be, I just can’t embrace this moviet with the critical and box office consensus that it earned, because for me, it’s action-misery, not action-adventure, and the world is miserable enough now without wallowing in the worst of it. Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan took the graphic novel source material far too seriously and squelched any sense of pleasure or fun. Right now, we need fun — at least, I do, and if you can’t have fun watching a movie about a guy in a bat costume, something is wrong with that movie.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I respect this movie for its craftmanship, I love the legacy of its title character, and I really wish I could embrace it. If you did — if this suits you — then great, enjoy. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t. I never say that. Besides, we’re all entitled to our opinions — including me.
Now, as Downey’s character-within-a-character says in Tropic Thunder, “We cool?”
Tags: The Dark Knight