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?

9 responses to “Evil Incarnate in Cinema

  1. “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.”

    It’s interesting then that the Joker tells that story about his father (and his supposed wife). One can’t help but wonder if perhaps he truly was traumitized as a child or if perhaps in attempting to create a truly terrifying portrait of evil Nolan and Ledger and Co. are trying to deconstruct the typical villain’s back-story idea. It would certainly offer something unfamiliar to most viewers.

    Without subtext of this kind, we have very little reason to feel bad in any way for the Joker. We don’t feel sorry for him, or feel remorse that he is the way he is – at least not for his sake. That somehow Ledger makes him charming at times despite his evil is a testament to his performance.

  2. Of course, I mean he COULD be charming if he wanted to.

  3. My thought was that the stories about the Joker’s father and wife were clearly fabrications, since each was offered as the explanation for his scars— and therefore contradictory. In other words, he was just dicking with us.


    I’d say you could look to the very same movie for a riveting (and believable) portrayal of good – Gary Oldman as Gordon – he plays him straight as an arrow – an uncommonly good man caught up in the chaotic world of evil swirling around him. It’s a performance that won’t be remembered as well as Ledger’s and it’s not as well played – but it’s certainly amazing and Oldman makes being a virtuous person fun AS all get out – everyone cheered in the theatre I watched it at when he was revealed to not actually be dead halfway through.

    I think one reason that evil is always so much more lauded than good is because, as human beings, we identify much more with a fallen nature than a good one – our entire world is built around the idea of conflict and when we see a character who is completely good, as a character who is completely evil, it’s not as interesting or engrossing to us. That, and we’re not as familiar with good – we don’t know how to portray it as well as evil, and we suck at it more often than not.

  5. *as opposed to a character who’s completely evil

  6. Brandon–

    The opposite seems more likely to me: not that we’re all wonderful people, but consider ourselves to be. But there’s been a certain combination in Western myth of admirability and a disregard for the rules. Batman is usually called a much better character than Superman because Supes is a ‘boyscout’– follows rules, and is therefore not cool or interesting. We love the western because its stories tend to be morality plays in a setting with no respect for the law. We’ve been trained to get a thrill when larger-than-life characters go outside the bounds of what’s expected or allowed– and love to think of ourselves as the sort of maverick who might do the same kind of thing. Vigilante justice is so appealing to us for just this reason. And a small step deeper into this mindset gives us a fascination with villains, even to the point that they become heroes: Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, the Terminator.

  7. I think we are intrigued, not by the capacity for evil itself, but at the ability of the character to do as he or she pleases uninhibited by others’ opinions. Humans may be innately fallen and prone to evil, but we want to be good, at least good enough to be liked by others. We never want to be so bad as to be socially untouchable. We need that community. So we admire, even idolize, the confidence of those who bluntly and proudly commit evils. We long for the freedom to stop caring about others’ judgment.

  8. I recently watched Kazan’s On the Waterfront for the first time, and after seeing The Dark Knight this evening, was shocked to see the contrasts and parallels between the two movies. Everything about them is incredibly different but they still seem to say similar things about good and evil. Karl Malden’s Father Barry seems to me to be the antithesis of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Just a little randomness amid all of the heavy philosophy…

    I do wonder with you, though, why there haven’t been many (any?) recent truly good, righteous characters in film.

  9. Pingback: » The Dark Knight « The Search Half Past Noon

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