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FROM RHAPSODIC TO SCATHING, HERE'S WHAT TOP CRITICS HAD TO SAY ABOUT THE DARK KNIGHT AND HIS JOKEY PLAYMATE


 

The movie exudes a predatory glamour that makes the comic-book films that have come before it look all the more like kid stuff. “The Dark Knight” is jammed with thorny underworld conspiracies, obscenely oversize tank-cars, and action scenes that teeter madly out of control, all blanketed by the psycho-anarchic musings of a villain so warped he turns crime into a contest of Can you top this? At two hours and 32 minutes, this is almost too much movie, but it has a malicious, careening zest all its own. It's a ride for the gut and the brain...Heath Ledger's mesmerizing, scary-funny performance begins with the creepiness of his image: the greasy long hair, the makeup that looks as if he'd drawn it on with crayons, then messed it with tears...This Joker may be a torture freak, but he also has a lost quality, a melancholy hidden within those black-circled eyes. He turns slaughter into a punchline; he's a homicidal comedian with an audience of one — himself. In this, the last performance he completed before his death, Ledger had a maniacal gusto inspired enough to suggest that he might have lived to be as audacious an actor as Marlon Brando, and maybe as great. --OWEN GLEIBERMAN, Entertainment Weekly


“The Dark Knight” is a handsome, accomplished piece of work, but it drove me from absorption to excruciation within 20 minutes, and then it went on for two hours more. It's the standard-bearer for the school of comic-book movies that confuses pompousness with seriousness and popular mechanics for drama...there isn't a single stirring or inspired moment in it...Yes, Ledger gives a bravura performance and detonates a savage sick joke or two. But it's a Pyrrhic acting victory. The whole movie is set up for him to be the jiving put-on artist of destruction outwitting the squares. Wagging his tongue, crinkling his brow and wiggling his arms when not dropping them lankily by his sides, he's a death-head's grin that walks and talks. Ledger brings it off: He knows how to deliver a line like "You complete me" to Batman with lip-smacking self-satisfaction. But he's stuck in the relentless wordplay and sadistic vaudeville that comprise Nolan's kiddie-cartoon versions of the Theatre of the Absurd. --MICHAEL SRAGOW, Baltimore Sun

Someone has finally made a superhero movie that doesn't cater to kids or fanboys. It's a movie packed with the danger, edge, menace, relevance and thematic heft of some of the screen's great urban crime dramas...Ledger's slow-draw, head-rolling, tongue-flicking, clown-faced performance is every bit as good as the advance hype. Better, even. In a daredevil turn that lays to waste previous attempts at playing the Joker, Ledger accomplishes work of such assurance, beauty, dark humor and terrifying volatility that he supercharges every frame he is in. We're talking an iconic, instantly legendary performance right up there with the screen's all-time greatest boogiemen. STEPHEN REBELLO, Playboy


Warner Bros. has continued to drain the poetry fantasy, and comedy out of Tim Burton’s original conception for “Batman (1989), completing the job of coarsening the material into hyperviolent summer action spectacle. Yet “The Dark Knight” is hardly routine—it has a kicky sadism in scene after scene, which keeps you on edge and sends you out onto the street with post-movie stress disorder. And it has one startling and artful element: the sinister and frightening performance of the late Heath Ledger as the psychopathic murderer the Joker...[Ledger] shambles and slides into a room, bending his knees and twisting his neck and suddenly surging into someone’s face like a deep-sea creature coming up for air. Ledger has a fright wig of ragged hair; thick, running gobs of white makeup; scarlet lips; and dark-shadowed eyes. He’s part freaky clown, part Alice Cooper the morning after, and all actor. He’s mesmerizing in every scene... as you’re watching him, you can’t help wondering—in a response that admittedly lies outside film criticism—how badly he messed himself up in order to play the role this way. His performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss. --DAVID DENBY, The New Yorker

On one hand, it's a hugely entertaining bit of eye-candy, with smashing new toys, epic action sequences and a scarily perfect performance from the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. On the other, it's a disturbing--sometimes even depressing--reflection on the state of the nation. Much of the film draws on war-on-terror imagery--blown-up buildings and video extortions, human bombs and cowering hostages, extra-legal renditions and illegal surveillance. The movie even makes a point of calling the Joker "a terrorist." The metaphor is a little soft--a terrorist has goals, while the Joker's only goal is more terror. But coming at just the right time (even two years ago might have been too soon), and clearly thought through, these touches give the film a weight it wouldn't have otherwise, and--like its hero--a different, darker side...The Joker's assaults--by knife, by gun, by gasoline--have an ugly immediacy...Next to Ledger's performance, Jack Nicholson's scenery-chewing was pure Cesar Romero. --STEPHEN WHITTY, The Star-Ledger

As played by the late Heath Ledger, with tangled greasy hair, grotesque white makeup, darting mad eyes and an obscene tongue that keeps licking his slashed, painted-on smile, this Joker is an agent of chaos so arbitrarily evil he strikes terror not just in his foes, but in the mobsters who hire him to eliminate Gotham City's caped crusader. It's a stupendously creepy performance, wild but never over the top...as the two-and-a-half-hour movie enters its second half, the unvarying intensity and the sometimes confusing action sequences take a toll. You may emerge more exhausted than elated. Nolan wants to prove that a superhero movie needn't be disposable, effects-ridden junk food, and you have to admire his ambition. But this is Batman, not “Hamlet.” Call me shallow, but I wish it were a little more fun. --DAVID ANSEN, Newsweek


“The Dark Knight” is beyond dark. It's as black — and teeming and toxic — as the mind of the Joker. “Batman Begins,” the 2005 film that launched Nolan's series, was a mere five-finger exercise. This is the full symphony...In its rethinking and transcending of a schlock source, “The Dark Knight” is up there with David Cronenberg's 1986 version of “The Fly.” It turns pulp into dark poetry...This Joker is simply one of the most twisted and mesmerizing creeps in movie history. And the actor, who died in January at 28 of an accidental prescription-drug overdose, is magnificent. --
RICHARD CORLISS, Time


Even if the death of Heath Ledger hadn’t already draped it in a funeral shroud, “The Dark Knight” would be a morbid affair: It could only be darker if Batman died...“The Dark Knight” is noisy, jumbled, and sadistic... all fits and starts—fitfully suspenseful, fitfully scary, one jerky episode after another with jolts of brutality to keep you revved up...When Burton’s “Batman” came out, some prominent critics griped that the film was too violent for kids. Wait’ll they get a load of this. --
DAVID EDELSTEIN, New York Magazine


With Christian Bale returning in the title role and Heath Ledger giving a shocking, indelible performance as his arch-nemesis the Joker, "The Dark Knight" may be the most hopeless, despairing comic-book movie in memory...Always a consummate professional, Ledger threw himself into a role he clearly relished, giving a transfixing performance as a whiny-voiced god of chaos whose hard-core nihilism is bone-chilling. For it's what he represents, not what he looks like, that is finally the horror of the Joker. He has no scruples, no morals, no goal except anarchy, no plan except the end of planning. --
KENNETH TURAN, Los Angeles Times


Christopher Nolan's latest exploration of the Batman mythology steeps its muddled plot in so much murk that the Joker's maniacal nihilism comes to seem like a recurrent grace note. A great deal of the anticipation surrounding the film has sprung from the hope that Heath Ledger's role in it would turn out to be something memorable. That hope has been rewarded more fully than anyone familiar with his previous work might have imagined...This knife-wielding psychopath isn't jaunty, but hunched and frowzy. His mirthless grin isn't fixed, but the lipstick smear of a crazy street lady. He moves with Peter Lorre's furtiveness, speaks in a bright, crisp voice that seems to channel Jack Lemmon, and licks his scarred chops with a frequency that suggests heavy doses of anti-depressives. If the stories he tells about those scars are contradictory, they are never less than creepily entertaining. He's the best-written character in the script, but it's Ledger's eerie fervor that plumbs the depths of the Joker's derangement. --
JOE MORGENSTERN, Wall Street Journal

“It’s a Coney Island roller coaster ride with some of the rails missing. It begins with a bank robbery that ends with most of the villains dead and the bravest bank officer with a hand grenade in his mouth attached to a school bus. When the bus pulls away…well, zing goes the strings of his heart. This is the work of the Joker, an archfiend who suffers from rabies of the soul—and cherry-picks his victims at will from the populace of Gotham...it’s the Joker’s movie all the way, and even with his Emmett Kelly whiteface and lipstick-smeared permanent smile slashed jaw to jaw by a razor blade, you know it’s Heath Ledger, hamming it up outrageously in his last film role.” --REX REED, The New York Observer

Of the three male lookers who dominate it, who would have guessed that the one with his face hidden behind twisted clown makeup, whose perfect features and fair brow are not glimpsed even once, would prove the most memorable? This is not because Heath Ledger died in January, though that event does perhaps add some otherwise unearned melancholy to the film. It's because Ledger's performance is so intense and so lasting; it's because despite the insane mask, it's a subtle, nuanced piece of acting so powerful it banishes all memories of the handsome Aussie behind it. The makeup seems to have liberated him: He's supple of body, expressive with only his eyes, and his voice has undulations of irony and mockery and psychopathology to it. He's an essay--in a way he's never before been, playing straight-faced characters -- in pure charisma. The performance is also the most interesting thing in the film, and when the Joker is absent, "The Dark Knight" loses most of its energy and dynamism and becomes nothing but a pretty-boy face-off between Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart. --STEPHEN HUNTER, Washington Post

What differentiates this new Batman epic from most serioso hero/antihero comic-book movies, including its predecessor, Nolan's "Batman Begins," is that the blackness this time seems fully earned. We are watching not simply a glorified expression of adolescent funk – dweeb angst – but a full-scale vision of depravity. This depravity is personified most conspicuously by the Joker, portrayed by Heath Ledger...When Jack Nicholson played the Joker, his campiness was only one step removed from the giggles of the old "Batman" TV series. By contrast, Ledger doesn't offer the audience the slightest glimmer of hope or hilarity...He's fortified by awfulness. He can't get enough of it, and nothing – not wealth or fame or anything else – will buy him off...there is a reason the Joker, and not Batman, is the heart and soul of this movie, and it's not just because of the quality of the performance...the stringy-haired Joker with his smeary white makeup and red lipstick, who cackles while he commits the most unspeakable crimes, represents an implacable villainy that seems horrifyingly up to the minute. He's the monster of our zeitgeist. He's laughing at you and you can't laugh him off...this comic-book movie is more disturbing, and has more freakish power, than anything else I've seen all year. --PETER RAINER, The Christian Science Monitor

As a piece of visual storytelling, from shot to shot, "The Dark Knight" is a mess...At the end, a major character is left hanging, literally, as we are figuratively. If this is genius, give me hackery...There's no dramatic arc-- only a series of speed bumps. The moments in the movie that should be the most dramatic are glanced over so quickly that we barely have time to register what has happened. I'm not sure the actors know what's going on, either...the finest moments in "The Dark Knight" belong to Ledger as the Joker...There's desperation beneath the Joker's cruelty, and Ledger shows it to us in his hunched-up walk, and in the slurry precision of his speech. The performance is unsettling and difficult to watch, partly because it's impossible to remove it from the context of Ledger's death. But it's a fine performance regardless, and I wish the movie around it were more deserving. --
STEPHANIE ZACHAREK, Salon.com


Pitched at the divide between art and industry, poetry and entertainment, it goes darker and deeper than any Hollywood movie of its comic-book kind largely by embracing an ambivalence that at first glance might be mistaken for pessimism. But no work filled with such thrilling moments of pure cinema can be rightly branded pessimistic... [Heath Ledger’s] Joker is a creature of such ghastly life, and the performance is so visceral, creepy and insistently present that the characterization pulls you in almost at once. When the Joker enters one fray with a murderous flourish and that sawed-off smile, his morbid grin a mirror of the Black Dahlia’s ear-to-ear grimace, your nervous laughter will die in your throat...Mr. Ledger, his body tightly wound but limbs jangling, all but disappears under the character’s white mask and red leer. Licking and chewing his sloppy, smeared lips, his tongue darting in and out of his mouth like a jittery animal, he turns the Joker into a tease who taunts criminals and the police, giggling while he-he-he (ha-ha-ha) tries to burn the world down. He isn’t fighting for anything or anyone. He isn’t a terrorist, just terrifying. --
MANOHLA DARGIS, The New York Times

Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is a haunted film that leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy...The key performance in the movie is by the late Heath Ledger, as the Joker. Will he become the first posthumous Oscar winner since Peter Finch?...Ledger has a good deal of dialogue in the movie, and a lot of it isn’t the usual jabs and jests we’re familiar with: It’s psychologically more complex, outlining the dilemmas he has constructed, and explaining his reasons for them. --ROGER EBERT, Chicago Sun-Times

I can only speak superlatives of Ledger, who is mad-crazy-blazing brilliant as the Joker. Miles from Jack Nicholson's broadly funny take on the role in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, Ledger takes the role to the shadows, where even what's comic is hardly a relief. No plastic mask for Ledger; his face is caked with moldy makeup that highlights the red scar of a grin, the grungy hair and the yellowing teeth of a hound fresh out of hell. To the clown prince of crime, a knife is preferable to a gun, the better to "savor the moment."...The haunting and visionary “Dark Knight” soars on the wings of untamed imagination. It's full of surprises you don't see coming. And just try to get it out of your dreams. PETER TRAVERS, Rolling Stone

The late Heath Ledger definitely etches one of the scariest and most sinister villains to darken the screen. And Ledger's isn't the only strong performance in the movie...Aaron Eckhart's outstanding performance has been overshadowed by all the well deserved praise for Ledger. As crusading district attorney Harvey Dent, who turns into the vengeful Two Face, Eckhart has an even more complex role than Ledger's Joker, and he does it full justice...Many of the plot developments are confusing, sometimes downright incomprehensible...As the movie races toward its climax, we're never quite certain how the story resolves itself...in the last analysis, it's still a Batman movie, not a work of moral or psychological acuity. The critics are trying to read a lot of profundity into a skillfully executed but superficial action extravaganza. -- STEPHEN FARBER, stephenfarber.com

Dark, grim, haunting and visionary, "The Dark Knight" is nothing short of brilliant, the best and scariest comic hero adaptation you are likely to see this summer season, and perhaps during the whole year...Three days after the screening, I am still haunted by some visual images; lines of cynical dialogue, particularly by the sinister Joker, splendidly and scarily played by Heath Ledger, who should receive a posthumous Oscar nomination...In terms of visuals, sounds, and tunes, "Dark Knight" is a supremely mounted roller coaster ride, defined by some of the most spectacular set pieces to be seen in American actioners in years. --EMANUEL LEVY.com

 

THE DARK KNIGHT: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Caine, William Fichtner, Eric Roberts, Cillian Murphy (Directed by Christopher Nolan; Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan; Warner Bros.)
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