Sensational, grandly sinister and not for the kids, "The Dark Knight" elevates pulp to a very high level. Heath Ledger's Joker takes it higher still, and the 28-year-old actor's death earlier this year of an accidental overdose lends the film an air of a funeral and a rollicking, out-of-control wake mixed together. In "The Dark Knight," Ledger makes all other comic book screen villains look like Baby Huey. Like Shakespeare's Iago or Richard III, like Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter or Javier Bardem's implacable murderer in "No Country For Old Men," this is no Method maniac, asking or telling anyone about his character's motivation. At one point Ledger throws up his hands and says, agitatedly, that it's a waste of time looking for a rationale behind the Joker's smeary psycho-harlequin makeup.
"I'm a dog chasing cars," he says. "I wouldn't know what to do with one of them if I caught it."
Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan, who fashioned the screenplay with his brother, Jonathan, has created the most ambitious and sleekly beautiful of all the superhero screen outings. A handful of others—" Superman II" and " Spider-Man 2" come to mind—may have fewer loose ends and a more exhilarating spirit. They're certainly shorter; this one is 152 minutes. But "The Dark Knight," which improves upon the solemn authority Nolan and Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne brought to " Batman Begins," has an atmospheric shimmer all its own. Its unsung hero is cinematographer Wally Pfister, who makes every interior and exterior a thing of burnished, menacing beauty. Shot largely in Chicago at night, greatly aided by production designer Nathan Crowley, this is the most nocturnally insinuating entertainment since Michael Mann's "Collateral."
No heartland paradise
Sampling every flat Midwestern dialect he no doubt heard while shooting in Chicago, Ledger gives the Joker the deceptively bland vowel sounds of heartland America. But Gotham City is no heartland paradise. It teeters on...