Being Batman is a drag. One day there are nipples on your body armor, the next, zero superfluous papillaries. And that cowl! No peripheral vision. Hello? It's tough enough ridding Gotham City of a cancerous electorate and corrupt law enforcement officials, but having to shred your trapezius every time some joker with a crazy dream arrives in town is more than anyone should ask. But sacrifices must be made, because that's what heroes do. Or so goes the nihilistic logic behind The Dark Knight
, a grim little parable on the wages of sin and the high cost of redemption. It is, of course, impossible to view Nolan's extravagantly dour film through anything but the prism of Ledger's death. His Joker, so unlike that of Jack Nicholson and about as far removed from Cesar Romero as humanly possible, is the sort of convoluted, densely layered characterization that gets nominated for awards come Oscar time. He arrives onscreen sporting a cheapo rubber clown mask, but when the mask comes off, sure enough, the face beneath the frown splits into a poorly pancaked rictus, a dead-man's razor-blade smile. "Some people just want to watch the world burn," is how Alfred (Caine, given little to do), Bruce Wayne's trusty butler, describes this clown's modus operandi, and he's spot-on. As Ledger plays him, the Joker's just out for a grin, setting fire to mountains of stolen mob-money while secretly striving not simply to vanquish his enemies, but to bring them down to his gutter-eye level, to besmirch their good names, and to sully their honor in the eyes of Gotham's citizens. Ledger gives a career-defining performance, made all the more poignant in light of his untimely death. It's a pity, then, that when taken as a whole, this 2½-hour film is such a stuffy downer. It's jam-packed with flawlessly designed set-pieces and skulduggery, sure, but it's also shrouded in grim portent, overlaid with a filigree of despair, and, for good measure, covered in a patina of dire consequence. In short, it's a Batman
for the new age of anxiety. Gotham D.A. Harvey Dent (Eckhart, straying far from Tommy Lee Jones' wack-jobbery) is both the law-and-order embodiment of the caped crusader's rough justice and a vessel for the Joker's machinations, and his fate, which shall not be revealed here, is horrific indeed. And then, above it all, dramatically backlit and eternally conflicted, towers Bale's Batman, an icon who, in the three years since Batman Begins
, has had all the vitality sucked out of him. He growls more here than he did in Nolan's first foray into the franchise (Batman Begins
), and he's buffer, too, if such a thing is possible, sporting cheekbones that look as though they were sculpted with a Dremel. There's something intangible missing from this Dark Knight
, though. For all its thrum and thunder, from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's wonderfully percussive score to the eerily beautiful shots of Batman, his cape fully unfurled, swooping among the vertiginous, skyscraping towers of downtown Gotham City, Nolan's film feels chilly and ill at ease. Apart from the perpetually fascinating Gyllenhaal, who plays Bruce Wayne's once-upon-a-girlfriend Rachel Dawes, The Dark Knight
lives up to its title in both tone and execution, a grim commentary on a grimmer reality. The only thing here that feels truly, utterly alive is Ledger's maniacal, muttery Joker. The last laugh is his and his alone. It's enough to make you cry.