Even if “The Dark Knight” didn’t represent Heath Ledger’s swan song, it would mark a high point in the late actor’s career. Ledger’s accent has sometimes sounded geographically challenged when he’s been asked to abandon his native Australian one, but here he reinvents himself entirely, trading in his authoritative baritone for a nasal snarl worthy of a sadistic jester.
Unlike Jack Nicholson, who turned the Joker into an irrepressible ham, Ledger plays Batman’s foil as a demented sociopath whose very existence seems a mockery of civilized society.
Not that there’s much that’s civilized about Gotham City under new district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), as mob heavies infiltrate the police department and compromise the courts.
More than ever, chaos reigns: Jails and hospitals explode with alarming regularity while the city’s most notorious terrorist, with his smeared makeup and freakishly disfigured sneer, openly taunts the one man capable of restoring the peace.
That, of course, is billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who snoozes through board meetings by day and patrols Gotham in his new-and-improved Bat-suit by night.
Once again, Bale brings scant humor to the Caped Crusader — he’s the strong, silent type — but Bale’s performance is perfectly suited to the grim tone of Christopher Nolan’s comic-book epic and stands in deliberate counterpoint to Ledger’s macabre clownishness.
While Nolan’s second take on the Bat-franchise is less cohesive than 2005’s “Batman Begins,” which told a simpler story with fewer loose ends, “The Dark Knight” is the more thrilling and unsettling of the two. From the start, it drags us down to Gotham’s anarchic hell and never lets us up; it is a bruising slice of sensory overload, a captivating spectacle as likely to dazzle the eyes as fray the nerves.
That’s a good thing, especially for those who see the film on the towering IMAX screens for which it is intended. Though Nolan is guilty of sloppy editing in spots, “The Dark Knight” is never less than exhilarating, a breakneck ride with brains and heart to match its taste for brutality.
How does it stack up in this summer of the superhero? It is as invigorating an adrenaline rush as any comic-book fantasy could be, and far more serious than anyone might expect.
Beneath its brilliant surface, “The Dark Knight” is a brooding meditation on the moral conflict that rages even in the noblest soul, whether the put-upon D.A.’s, whose spirit is broken by the violence around him, or Batman’s, whose psyche is every bit as tortured as his malicious arch-enemy’s.