If You Wanted to Make an Analogy

So, yeah, I loved The Dark Knight.  As did everyone, it seems, I thought Ledger’s performance was amazing.  I think what’s most amazing about his performance is that he makes you feel as if the Joker is real, not just in the context of the movie, but really real.  Almost everybody else, from Batman to Harvey Dent (with the exception of Rachel Dawes), seemed real in the context of the movie, but they didn’t seem to me like they quite bled over into real life.  It was like the lot of them were constantly asking themselves “How would my character respond in this situation?”  And Ledger and Gyllenhall ask themselves, “If I were this person, what would I do?”

It’s a subtle difference and I’m not saying that one is worse than the other.  It’s just that, for me, one allows me as a viewer to feel a safe gap between me and the story and the other doesn’t. 

I’m especially thinking of the moment when Dawes realizes that she’s going to die and how Gyllenhall makes you, right at that moment, wish more than anything that, if it meant everyone else in the movie had to die, she would get to live.  It’s something about the breath she takes and the way she shifts her body so resolutely.  In a movie that doesn’t really flesh out much of Dawes as a character, Gyllenhall turns her into a person whose loss you take personally.

In a way, the same with Ledger.  I really probably don’t have anything to say that a million people haven’t said before, but I thought his performance was amazing.  I get what Kat says about wishing for some kind of backstory.  But I felt like we got a backstory to the Joker, at least as much of one as could be articulated without rendering him too sympathetic.

And you get that, not from anything the Joker says–because you can’t trust anything the Joker says as the truth–but from what Ledger gives the character.  We know he’s in pain, constantly, from the way Ledger held the Joker’s body.  We know that he thrives on the pain, that something about the jolt of it is important to him.  We know that some of it is self-inflicted–just from the way he is constantly toying with his own scars; they pain him and yet he’s constantly poking at them.  We know that there’s an almost child-like quality to him–and not in the innocent and sweet way, but in the amoral, chaos-inducing way, see how he holds himself when he comes out of the hospital.

And so we know enough, I felt, that the Joker might have always been troubled, but something happened to him when he was very young, something nightmarishly bad, and that the nightmare continued–because he’s never been in any system that Batman can find–until he became it.

I think it’s brilliant to so subtly give you the frame of the story in the carriage of the man while letting your imagination fill in the backstory, because, of course, like all the best horror movie makers know, it’s often what you don’t see that’s much scarier than you see.

As for a third Batman, am I the only person who would like to see them not devolve the franchise into an endless number of sequels, which slowly degrade into cheesiness?  I say, let a third one be a final one–do something Batman Beyond-ish and call it a day.

Edited to add:  I forgot the whole point of my post, which was to say, if you wanted to make an analogy between this movie and anything, I recommend you ponder the Joker as Loki.

Tell me you see it, too.

9 thoughts on “If You Wanted to Make an Analogy

  1. What’s really chilling, and what fits very well with your description of the Joker, is part of an interview I heard on NPR with Jack Nicholson from a couple of years ago about what a psychological challenge it was to become that kind of character. (this was part of a larger discussion of the current movie, and previous iterations of the Joker). Then they said that when Nicholson was told that Ledger had died, his first response was… “I warned him.”

  2. Backstory is overrated. If anything, it diminishes the awesomeness of Ledger’s performance to be able to say ‘oh, he has daddy issues. that explains it.’

    What makes the Joker so terrifying and effective is because we don’t know why he doing what he is doing. It is left to our imaginations, which is far more interesting and smart than being spoon fed some cheap exposition.

  3. I think the objection to no backstory is a philosophical rather than a narrative one, in this case. It’s a reflection on nihilism and not so much on storytelling.

  4. What makes the Joker so terrifying and effective is because we don’t know why he doing what he is doing.

    Except that we do. He says it himself. He is an agent of chaos. He exists as much as a metaphysical element to propel the narrative.

    I don’t object to a lack of backstory for the Joker. But I will start to vehemently object if EVERY villian in the movies over the next 10 years has no described motivation other than “he’s the bad guy.” Yes, I’m a little sick of the “daddy locked me in a closet” exposition we’ve had for 25 years. I do, however, like having some story element attached to my villains/ bad guys.

    That’s why I think Dexter works so well. You’ve got a bad guy who for most of the first season thinks he’s a bad guy “just because.” When you finally get his backstory(ies) you realise that evil had a birthplace in him. But it doesn’t really matter. You can have it both ways when you watch Dexter.

    We know he’s in pain, constantly, from the way Ledger held the Joker’s body.

    I found that very interesting.

  5. Except that we do. He says it himself. He is an agent of chaos. He exists as much as a metaphysical element to propel the narrative.

    Yeah, but most of what he says is a lie. He’s like Loki that way.

    ps Fuck Nicholson and his mugging for the camera, playing essentially “Jack Nicholson” and calling it “acting” for the last thirty years.

  6. Sarcastro, yeah, that’s what got me thinking of Loki, actually, that he is both an agent of chaos and a liar.

    Coble, I know what you mean. It will stink if that becomes the way of the villain. I think it’s one thing if it serves the purpose of the story–and I think in Joker’s case, it does (especially because even in the comics, he has five or six different origin stories depending on his mood). But it will suck if it just becomes a sloppy way of film-making.

  7. ps Fuck Nicholson and his mugging for the camera, playing essentially “Jack Nicholson” and calling it “acting” for the last thirty years.

    No damn doubt. I sat through The Bucket (of warm vomit) List at my parents’ insistance on “vacation”. God, what a wretched film.

    But it will suck if it just becomes a sloppy way of film-making.

    Exactly. It’s the sloppiness I object to. That may be as bad as trying to make me feel sorry for Hannibal Lecter because his feewings wew huwted by the baad nazis.

  8. I can’t even say I was disappointed in the Bucket List. It was exactly what I thought it would be. Wise Old Negro and Smilin’ Jack go on a road trip.

  9. Jack has been playing Jack for a long time, but once in a while it leads to pleasures like Leo Dicaprio playing Jack back in his face in one scene of The Departed.

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