When we see Heath Ledger’s Joker in Nolan’s Dark Knight film, it is NOT so much a performance, as Heath Ledger the kind hearted endearing man who is spoken of with great affection by friends and family… goes a-way, and the… Jo-kerr… well, he .. now what was it he did… oh yeah..now I remember… he emerges from the existential void of chaos like the combined ghost of Travis Bickle, Tom Waits and Alex from A Clockwork Orange thrown into a blender set to crazy town.
Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance as the lunatic Joker is the most memorable screen villain in recent decades. He takes a very silly character and makes him believably dangerous and truly frightening. He makes a cartoonish two dimensional clown come to vivid life before our eyes, and the scary part is, he shows us his madness is not so mad.
That we could become like him with just a little push at the right time, a tiny bit of leverage applied in the right way, at the right time and OVER the edge of sanity we go, like Holmes and Moriarty tumbling over the Reichenbach Falls.
If Nietzsche had his Overman slash Superman, then what is Heath Ledger’s Joker but the opposite of that? He is chaos and materialism personified. He exits in a moral vacuum of his own creation and he insists that the essential element of the universe is chaos. His living philosophy is that life has no meaning, just chaos, random events and morality is meaningless.
That there are no causes, divine plans, no consequences or purpose to anything. Just an existential void where you can play paint by numbers at your leisure with the entrails of your best friend or your enemy. It makes no difference what you do or why you do it, as there is no God, no final judgement, no scales of Justice nor Karma, just free floating pure selfish egoism in a world of chaos where everybody takes what they can get while they can get it.
The Joker sees all this and laughs, not in desperation, but with mad puppy-dog like glee. His god is chaos. His reason is un-reason, as a trickster character like Loki or Pan, he is there to fuck with our beliefs and world view, and he thrives on attention, on dragging people down to his level.
He doesn’t want to see the world burn, so much as light the match that gets the process started. He would rather somebody else like Batman or Harvey Dent lit that match, and his efforts to do anything are ultimately meaningless.
In a pack of cards, the Joker card is a placeholder. The Joker card is Wild in that it can take the place of any other card, or be anything the players of the card game choose it to be.
The Joker card always matches or beats whatever it is against. …For each character or group, the Joker has a different manner of speaking.
Comic book creator Dean Trippe observed on his Batman Podcast The Bat Cast that some film critics of Ledger in The Dark Knight found his performance inconsistent. Something that may not be obvious that Dean pointed out, is that the Joker is a wild card, not just symbolically but literally.
Watch any scene, and you will see Ledger adapt and change into different voices and intonations, his actions seem almost random. But look closer, and you will see that Heath Ledger as the Joker embodies the idea that the Joker card can match any suit or trump any other card.
Ledger as the Joker matches or trumps the very characters he plays off of. Whether the police, Batman or the mob, the Joker becomes whatever someone else needs him to become. He is like a chameleon, hence his varied performance in The Dark Knight, which is clearly intentional rather than accidental as some film critics have implied.
Is the Joker even aware of his chameleon like nature? There is no real way to know, but if you watch the film again, you will see it. The way he changes up his behavior, mannerisms, tone of voice and false values, or lack of them to suit who he is dealing with in the moment.
It all adds something to the role that makes you appreciate the research, and attention to detail Heath Ledger put into the role.
When Batman looked into the existential void after his parents death he decided to make sense of senselessness. As an adult, he uses the death of his parents as fuel for transcendence. He still feels pain, he just doesn’t make pain into his identity as so many of us do.
Batman acknowledges his pain, loss and grief. But he moves on and dedicates himself to the ideal of Justice. He didn’t get there overnight. He went through his own deeply perosonal dark knight of the soul, he went through chaos and despair, grief and pain, and over the years he emerged on the other side of that. This deep psychological stuff is hard work, it is not easy, it is not something we can set goals for or plan for in any rational way.
Pain happens, despair happens, depression happens, and we deal with it the best way we know how, and no two people do it in the same way.
The Joker by contrast didn’t just stare into the abyss, he fell in love with it. He made it his personal god and he jumped into the void head first, dancing and laughing all the way.
There are valid arguments about whether Joker is truly insane, or whether he just enjoys what he does and puts on the theatrics as a cover story for why he does what he does, why he is who he is. Some would say he is not insane at all, he just loves killing people, causing pain and chaos wherever he goes. He is in love with being the Joker. He is the only sane man in an insane world.
There are no real boundaries to what the Joker would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke – Heath Ledger
The beauty of Ledger’s Joker is that just when we think we have him figured out, just when we think we have him pinned down – he wriggles away like a snake shedding its skin. He is undefinable, incomprehensible and his world view is unfathomable. To try to understand him with logic or reason is an exercise in futility.
The Joker is a true sociopath with no empathy, no reason, who only believes in chaos and no higher meaning to life. His constant narcissistic retelling of his own self-invented fictional origin is a good example. He relishes dramatising his own disturbing past for people. He gets off on the drama of the performance. Each time inventing a new fiction as to how he became who he is or who he pretends to be for the audience.
He relishes the sheer terror and faint hint of understanding in the eyes of his victims. That faint hint of sympathy they may have for him is his version of a cat playing with a mouse. The Joker just can’t help himself, he likes to PLAY with his food before he devours it.
At the end of film, we are still no closer than at the beginning to understanding the Joker, nor his motivations. He is a wild card, and each game means he holds a different value, a different role to play. And he knows he plays a role, because life is a game to him, a big cosmic joke. A twisted, demented game, but a game none the less.
There are elements of the Joker’s personality and habits that appeal to us, that are fun. Ledger is simultaneously hilarious and horrifying as the clown prince of crime. It can be fun to give in to our dark side, it can be fun to say fuck you to the world, and do things our own way. It can be a vicarious thrill to not just self-destruct but pull others down to our level.
But unless we are willing to embrace madness or give ourselves over to true nihilism, most of us will eventually crash and burn. Our darker self will stop being fun, we will cease to be agents of chaos, and instead will be slaves to whatever random impulse enters our sphere of influence on any given day, we become unthinking impulse driven animals, and it is a long climb back to normality from that place of spiritual unconsciousness.
We can learn from our own dark side, and it is something in us that can not be denied. To deny we have these impulses is to deny our very existence. Instead we can make peace with those impulses and feelings, and find a way to express them without destroying ourselves or those around us. I explored this idea more in depth in a previous article
Heath Ledger’s role if you can call it that, because he IS the Joker, he inhabits him from the inside out. Heath as the Joker became the role of his life. He really knocked it out of the park, and he will always be remembered for that role. He is iconic, hilarious, terrifying and above all – entertaining. While I will have more to say about him in future posts about The Dark Knight, let’s end this post with a quote from Heath himself on the role he loved.
It’s a combination of reading all the comic books I could that were relevant to the script and then just closing my eyes and meditating on it,
I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices — it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath — someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts. He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown, and Chris has given me free rein. Which is fun, because there are no real boundaries to what The Joker would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke
-Heath Ledger / EMPIRE Magazine Interview