Evil Incarnate in Cinema

Because I had other things to say about The Dark Knight in my previous post, I avoided too much discussion of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. But there is a ton to say about it, and after seeing the film a second time today, I really feel like writing more…

Heath Ledger’s Joker is, in a word, evil. Pure evil. He goes beyond a villain. As others have suggested, he may even be the devil incarnate. He’s motivated not by money but by a desire to see good go bad, to show the world that there is no escaping from sin (in the way that Satan hoped to tempt Christ in the desert and prove him susceptible to sin like everyone else).

In addition to Ledger’s maniacal, full-bodied (possessed?) acting, there are other things Nolan and crew do to make the Joker so utterly disturbing. The fact that he just pops onto the Gotham crime scene, seemingly from hell, makes him all the more devilish. We know nothing of who he is, where he’s from, if he’s really human. When incarcerated, the police can’t find any traces of anything remotely useful for identification. He’s a ghostly ghoul, a specter of chaos who seems to have superhuman abilities to orchestrate mayhem in all corners of the city. (And I’d be lying if I said the ghost-aspect wasn’t all the more eerie in light of Ledger actually being dead.)

Other, more subtle filmmaking touches add to the character’s malevolence. Sound, for example: the dissonant, buzz/drone Joker theme (as devised by Hans Zimmer) is spine-tingling; and the scene where Nolan cuts all sound as the Joker frightfully sticks his head out of the speeding cop car hammers home just how utterly serious this sometimes-funny demon actually is.

Portrayals like this—where evil is totally unexplained and yet so thoroughly convincing—are far more disturbing than the “look what happened in my childhood” villains of the horror film pantheon. Ledger’s Joker reminded me of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, or even Daniel Day Lewis’s Daniel Plainview—other recent embodiments of amoral men wreaking havoc, death, and destruction in the worlds they inhabit. It is interesting to me that these performances are increasingly the most lauded and rewarded in our culture. Both Bardem and Day Lewis won Oscars for their performances last year, and Ledger will doubtless be nominated for one (if not win) this year.

What is it about seeing evil so convincingly rendered on screen that attracts our praise? Why are there so many more “tour de force” performances of dastardly wretches than there are of good people? Indeed, why is it so hard to evoke a convincing portrayal of good, pure, moral characters in film and literature? Dostoevsky tried it in The Idiot (in the character of Myshkin) but ultimately failed. Is it even possible to evoke a righteous person as convincingly as an evil one? Perhaps it is because we are fallen and so unfamiliar with righteousness that we cannot produce these performances. But that still doesn’t answer the question: why do we celebrate the evil characters so much? Why are we going so ape-wild over Heath Ledger’s presentation (and I’m guilty of it, for sure) of an evil that is perhaps unparalleled in screen history?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for great acting performances. But at what point should we worry about our attraction to something so devilish as Heath Ledger’s Joker?