The cynics will say it's because the man died. But I'm absolutely sure he'd have won it if he'd been there to walk to the stage. There was too much "buzz" about Ledger. First, his performance in "Brokeback Mountain," but also word from the set that his "Joker" was "different." So different that it re-wrote the character from previous interpretations—the most notable being Jack Nicholson's bravura "take" on the role (previously thought to be "iconic"). But what no one suspected was that anybody hoping to play the role afterwards—was going to have pay homage to Ledger, while having to steer their own course. Now, no one can play this role without acknowledgement of what he did. In this portrayal, he went someplace else. Away from the comics, and the past, and away from Heath Ledger. He took it to a whole new plane.
A viral internet campaign prepared The Faithful for the shock, and there was the usual hue and cry and whining about expectations and legacy. Nobody griped after the movie was released.
In the movie, we get glimpses of Ledger's strategies until this scene, but here we see his "Joker" in full-flower. He introduces himself with just the Joker Laugh. But it's not the standard bone-chilling laughter associated with the character. It's a parody, a dismissal of it—speaking the Ha's, the Ho's and Hee-Hee's (like he doesn't have to really do the schtick). Then, he pulls a magic trick that gets everybody's attention, and Ledger holds the screen for the rest of the movie in an odd, rhythm-less, whiny cadence,* eyes that shift on a dime, and a quick-silver unpredictability that is the character's real calling card. You just don't know what he's going to do next, but you know he's thinking about it and licking his lips in anticipation.**
This unfathomable quality keeps Ledger as the focal point for the film. It's Harvey Dent's story and how it impacts Bruce Wayne/Batman. The Joker's merely the pilot light sparking off near the gasoline drums. You can't take your eyes off of him, waiting for the worst to happen. He's the human equivalent of a car accident. ***
The Set-Up: How soon "The Dark Knight" begins after "Batman Begins" is a little tough to judge. BB ends with Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) telling Batman (Christian Bale) about the escalation of crime in Gothan City, how they're using weird get-ups and different methods, like a murdering bank-robber leaving a "Joker" playing card. "The Dark Knight" begins with one of those robberies of a mob-run bank. It seems the Gotham Police Department and the enterprising new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) are also planning to confiscate the mobs' collective monies.**** So, the crime-groups of Gotham City hold a low-rent summit to discuss events and make plans. They're going to have to throw out the agenda. Someone's about to crash the share-holder's meeting.
The Chechen walks through a metal detector that whoops as he passes. he checks his weapon at the door, and proceeds to the waiting tables, where he sits next to Maroni and clasps his hand. Two mobsters bring in a tv and set it at the head of the tables.
Maroni Thug: What the hell is this?
Lau: As you're all aware, one of our deposits was stolen. A relatively small amount: 68 million.
Chechen: Who's stoopid enough to steal from us?
Maroni: Two-bit whack-job...
Maroni:...wears a cheap purple suit and make-up. He's not the problem, he's a nobody. The problem is...our money being tracked by the cops.
Lau: Thanks to Mr. Maroni's well-placed sources, we know the police have indeed identified out banks using marked bills, and are planning to seize your funds..today. And since the enthusiastic new D.A. has put all of my competitors out of business, I'm your only option.
Maroni: So what are you proposing?
Lau: Moving all your deposits to one secure location. Not a bank.
Gambol: Where, then?
Lau: No one can know but me.
Lau: If the police should gain leverage over one of you...
Lau: Everyone's money would be at stake.
Chechen: What's stops them getting to you?
Lau: I go to Hong Kong, far from Dent's jurisdiction. And the Chinese will not extradite one of their own.
Maroni: How soon can you move the money?
Lau: I already have.
Lau: For obvious reasons, I couldn't wait for your permission. Rest assured, your money is...safe.
The Joker: Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.
Joker: Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.
Joker: Ho. Hee. Hee.
Joker: Ah-hah. Ah-Hoo. Hee. Hee. Ha.
Joker: And I thought my jokes were bad.
Gambol: Gimme one good reason why I shouldn't have my boy here pull your head off.
Joker: How 'bout a magic trick?
The Joker jabs a pencil into the card-table.
Joker: I'm gonna make this pencil disappear.
Gambol's body-man approaches The Joker, who puts him in an arm-lock and slams his head into the table...hard.
Joker: It's...bah...it's gone!
Joker: Oh, and by the way, the suit—it wasn't cheap.
Joker: You ought to know, you bought it.
Gambol gets up, angry.
Chechen: I want to hear proposition.
Joker: Let's wind the clocks back a year.
Joker: These cops and lawyers wouldn't dare cross any of you. I mean, what happened?
Joker: Did...did your balls drop off ? Hm? You see, a guy...like me...
Mobster: Damn right.
Joker: ...guy like me—
Joker: —Look, listen. I know why you choose to have your little..
Joker: ...group-therapy sessions in broad daylight.
Joker: I know why you're afraid to go out at night.
Joker: The Bat-man.
Joker: See, Batman has shown Gotham your true colors, unfortunately. Dent...
Joker:...he's just the beginning. And a...as for the television's so-called plan?
Joker: Batman has no jurisdiction. He'll find him and make him squeal.
Joker: I know the squealers when I see them.
Lau reaches to turn off his transmitter...
His picture fades to black.
Chechen: What do you propose?
Joker: It's simple, really. We kill the Batman.
The hoods laugh. Gambol seethes.
Maroni: If it's so simple, why haven't you done it already?
Joker: If you're good at something, never do it for free.
Chechen: How much you want?
Gambol: You're crazy!
Joker: I'm not...
Joker: ...No, I'm no...t.
Joker: If we don't deal with this now...
Joker: ...little Gambol here...
Joker:...won't be able to get a nickel for his grandma.
Gambol slams the table, and gets to his feet.
Gambol: Enough from the clown!
The Joker stands and opens his coat, revealing several hand-grenades attached to the lining, and his thumb looped through a pin.
Joker: A-tah-tah-tah! Let's not blow....
Joker: ...this out of proportion.
Gambol: You think you can steal from us and just walk away?
Gambol: I'm puttin' the word out!
Gambol: Five hundred grand for this clown dead! A million alive!
Gambol: So I can teach him some manners first.
Joker: Alright, so listen...
Joker: ...Why don't you give me a call...
Joker:...when you start taking things a little more seriously.
Joker: Here's my card.
He kicks the door open and disappears.
"The Dark Knight"
Words by Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer
Pictures by Wally Pfister and Christopher Nolan.
The Dark Knight is available on DVD from Warners Home Video.
* Matching it, composer Hans Zimmer and his associates worked over-time trying to come up with a musical equivalent of a tuneless "Joker" theme—more like itching powder or fingernails-on-a-blackboard for his accompaniment, rather than music.
** Part of the creepiness is that he is always licking the scars that crack the sides of his mouth to such a degree that I began to think of him as being a junk-yard dog (which were reinforced by the shot of the Joker driving away from a crime-scene with his head sticking out the window of the car, and his late admission: "I'm like a dog chasing a car—I wouldn't know what to do if I caught one!").
*** But, whatever it is, such is the power of this performance, my wife cannot watch this movie, so creeped out is she by Ledger in this role. She's had lots of opportunities to watch it, but can't get past this scene. She loved "Batman Begins" and really wanted to see "The Dark Knight," but can't when confronted with this...creature....
**** For the sake of brevity (attempting to maintain a shred of it) and clarity (which may be the biggest flaw in Christopher Nolan's direction), I've eliminated this scene's cut-away's to the GCPD police action on the mob-banks—only to find them empty. They only reinforce what is being said in the dialogue, and this is long enough as it is! However, that Nolan cuts away to do so (when it isn't necessary) exposes his frenetic cutting style—which greatly aids him in bringing some photo-realism to the larger-than-life comic-book action—but also shows that Nolan's biggest directing trick in his bag...is obfuscation. And that's the opposite of good story-telling.