I must say that Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight is the best that I have seen come out of Hollywood this year. Hell, I don’t think it would be a gross exaggeration to say that Ledger’s performance as the Joker was the single greatest performance in cinema history for a character adapted from a comic book. In all honesty, I find most comic book and superhero based movies to be fairly banal. They are generally the rehashing of the same trite material that seems to spring up every decade or so. But for the role of the Joker, Heath Ledger made it his mission to design a character that expresses in his own words, “a psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.”
Apparently, Mr. Ledger was inspired by both Malcom McDowell’s performance as Alex Delarge in A Clockwork Orange and punk rock junkie legend Sid Vicious. But with Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight, I see neither of these influences really shine through. The Joker’s maniacal fanaticism in The Dark Knight left me astonished with such a direct feeling of warped individual psychology that I can’t compare it to any performance. Ledger’s performance is one of those timeless expressive performances that stands alone, such as Conrad Veidt’s role as the noble Compracicho in The Man Who Laughs(1928) and Max Schreck as the decaying Count Orlok in Nosferatu(1922). Despite Ledger’s morbidly beautiful linguistic skills as the Joker, his most powerful acting talents are in his physical expressions. One of the most powerful scenes being when the Joker gets away from the police station he has just blown up and sticks his head out of a stolen cop car in a sort of proud maniac euphoria in complete silence.
Unlike most mass murderers, the Joker is a man that loves to get his hands dirty. He wants to be the one to press the button on the bomb that blows up the hospital and assassinate the public official. The Joker would be a nihilist if he didn’t believe in chaos for chaos sake. He simply wants to see the “world burn” and has no rules in obtaining that self-entertaining goal. He calls cops and mafia guys schemers as they are all following a personal path for power. The Joker’s power is that of destroying power, making him the ultimate villain.
The Joker is comparable to Bolshevik revolutionary and mass murderer Leon Trotsky (real name David Bronstein) in that regard. Trotsky had a goal of destroying all nation states in the world in which he promoted with his theory of “permanent revolution.” No matter how many arguments or theories Trotsky had to support his aspirations, ultimately he was just striving to destroy both man and civilization by brute force. Like the Joker, Leon Trotsky was an intelligent individual that could use his “gift” to cause morally inconceivable human destruction and irrational chaos. Most people forget that even the most depraved and deranged of individuals can make their aspirations seem rational.
Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight easily outweighed all the other talent featured in the film. This even includes the role of Christian Bale as Batman. Keep in mind, I thought that most of the performances by the leads were extraordinary. It is really hard to compete with the acting abilities of a man who can pull-off a mutilated clown in nurse drag that nonchalantly blows up a hospital for kicks. Sorry Jack Nicholson, but your performance as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman is for the most part, one dimensional in comparison to Mr. Ledgers.
The Dark Knight is a comic book adaptation that actually demands both respect and notoriety. It is not merely mindless and forgettable superhero entertainment, but a unique study in varying philosophical world views executed by actors not afraid to challenge the mainstream Hollywood limitations of acting. Heath Ledger, to me, is now The Joker. No other actor will ever be able to champion Mr. Ledger’s performance as the Joker as it is a work of individual expressive genius. How many other people could play both a gay stoic cowboy and The Joker with such natural precession? Unfortunately, it was probably the kind of genius that also caused his fancy of drug cocktails that would take away his life.