Shedding off one more layer of skin,
Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within
– Bob Dylan, Jokerman (1983)
Yes, of course Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a wonderful movie, on many levels. The screenplay is excellent, the action and dark visual splendor true to both Bob Kane and Frank Miller, all the actors – Bale, Freeman, Eckhart, Caine, Oldman and Gyllenhaal – are pitch perfect. But, as you already know, I’m not writing this today to talk about that.
I’m writing to talk about Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Sally Field in Sybil, Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place, Glenda Jackson in Marat/Sade. I’m here to talk about the performance that claws at your soul, rips your heart out and hands it to you still warm and dripping, and all you can think to do is dumbly take it and say thank you. There are a few performances in your life that clearly mark a before and an after. You remember the night you saw them, vividly, in the same detailed slow-motion way you remember that car crash where you thought you were about to die.
That’s what Heath Ledger’s Joker is. I don’t understand how a performance like this is even possible. It is clearly far, far better than the truly excellent movie containing it. When you watch the other characters up there on the screen, you understand that you are watching a movie – you see the strings being pulled, each performer hitting his/her marks, turning on the right shade of emotion here, the proper reaction there. All very well done, effective, professional. And then, there’s The Joker.
Ledger is no merely turning in a great performance here. He is channeling something truly disturbing. When you watch his portrayal of The Joker, you are seeing a man so far into the other side of insanity, so comfortable and at ease with his utter rejection of anything that could possibly redeem him, that he is in some ways no longer even recognizably human. The audience immediately senses that he has earned his insanity – that he is the way he is because he has survived some level of suffering that is beyond imagining. We are never clearly told what that suffering was, but this man has obviously been through Hell and has come back with demon blood.
And that makes The Joker, as played by Heath Ledger, into a sort of evil holy man. He is utterly fearless, for mere physical pain is nothing compared with the demons you sense are already inside his head.
I was struck by the difference between this Joker and the portrayal by Jack Nicholson in the Tim Burton version. That performance was magnificent, but it wasn’t dangerous. Nicholson’s Joker was still recognizably human – he was driven by pride, and he cared what people thought of him. In a sense that was his limitation, and inevitably, his downfall – ultimately he was trying to impress Batman.
Ledger’s Joker has no such easily definable motivations – he literally has nothing to lose – and therefore he can go anywhere and do anything. Of course he causes immense suffering with every action he takes, yet he never acts out of anger or venality or revenge. This Joker is far beyond such prosaic motivations. He burns a swath of destruction through the world merely as a byproduct of his tormented inner conversation.
And there lies the power of this performance: In spite of the pain he causes all around him, it is the tantalizing glimpse you are given into this man’s own tortured soul, the unspeakable suffering that you sense lies behind his mask of jaunty insoucience, which will haunt you and will stay with you forever.