..the Joker.. a demonic creation and three-ring circus of one wholly inhabited by Heath Ledger. Mr. Ledger died in January at age 28 from an accidental overdose, after principal photography ended, and his death might have cast a paralyzing pall over the film if the performance were not so alive
But his 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
A self-described agent of chaos, the Joker arrives in Gotham abruptly, as if he’d been hiding up someone’s sleeve. He quickly seizes control of the city’s crime syndicate and Batman’s attention with no rhyme and less reason. 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 (Eric Roberts’s bad guy, among them) and the police (Gary Oldman’s good cop), 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.
Mr. Nolan is playing with fire here, but partly because he’s a showman. Even before the Joker goes wild, the director lets loose with some comic horror that owes something to Michael Mann’s “Heat,” something to Cirque de Soleil, and quickly sets a tense, coiled mood that he sustains for two fast-moving hours of freakish mischief, vigilante justice, philosophical asides and the usual trinkets and toys, before a final half-hour pileup of gunfire and explosions. This big-bang finish — which includes a topsy-turvy image that poignantly suggests the world has been turned on its axis for good — is sloppy, at times visually incoherent, yet touching. Mr. Nolan, you learn, likes to linger in the dark, but he doesn’t want to live there.