As the Joker in "The Dark Knight," Heath Ledger doesn't so much chew up the scenery as he gnaws on it, grinds it into a pulp and then spits it out with a loud patooey.



As the Joker in "The Dark Knight," Heath Ledger doesn't so much chew up the scenery as he gnaws on it, grinds it into a pulp and then spits it out with a loud patooey.

Sporting lousy makeup, greasy hair and facial scars creating a warped smile, Ledger's Joker has a face only a mass murderer could love. But it's his demented psyche that should send squirm-inducing shivers up the spine of moviegoers.

Not content with just being evil, this Joker considers himself an agent of chaos. While he delights in killing people, he takes more pleasure in exploiting their baser instincts. Satan would welcome him as a kindred spirit.

That Ledger's performance is already receiving Oscar buzz certainly has plenty to do with the publicity surrounding his drug-related death earlier this year. No posthumous Academy Award has gone to an actor since Peter Finch in "Network" 22 years ago. That said, if Ledger were still alive, it's likely this praise would still be forthcoming.

This is one instance where the hype is well-deserved. The actor instills so much menace and creepiness into the Joker that Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh ("No Country for Old Men") would be humbled.

Ledger ups the ante, however, by adding complexity and even some comedy to the role. "You complete me," the Joker says to Christian Bale's Batman in one of their prickly encounters, aping a line from "Jerry Maguire." Where Tom Cruise's character uses that phrase in a romantic context in "Maguire," the Joker uses it to touch on the awkward ties between hero and villain. Theirs is a perverse symbiotic relationship.

Michael Caine's Alfred provides a clue to the Joker's modus operandi when the butler describes a past encounter with a lunatic in Asia. "Some men just want to watch the world burn," he says.

But the Joker represents just one of the dazzling components that makes "The Dark Knight" one of the best movies ever made based on a comic book.

Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan doesn't just explore the good vs. evil struggle. He deals with such thorny issues as whether Batman is actually good for Gotham City. He also adds a love triangle involving Batman, new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and attorney Rachael Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who replaces Katie Holmes).

Bale's Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, display enough inner conflict to require a lifetime on a psychiatrist's couch. The hoarseness in Batman's voice likely reflects the anguish of his overburdened conscience.

Can you guess this is not a happy film? If the movie's tone were any blacker, Crayola would have to invent a darker-hued crayon. "The Dark Knight" is aptly titled.

Though the movie sets up residence in bleak house, it doesn't shy away from action. The skyscraper kidnapping scene should drop a few jaws, and the multiple fights, chases, crashes and explosions should wow viewers who could care less about tortured psyches.

Parents of pre-teens should also take note. In addition to the film's cerebral leanings, the violence can be intense. For example, in one scene, the Joker sticks a pen in a table and then slams a bad guy's face into the pen. The R rating is avoided by not showing the grisly result, but the brutality is apparent.

"The Dark Knight" is also 21/2 hours long, so people with short attention spans might get antsy. Nolan does draw out the denouement with false endings. Methinks the protests will be muted as viewers look forward to watching the Joker's next foray into inspired malevolence.

As for the film's plot, the good guys, aided by Batman, go after mob money, irritating the bad guys enough for them to hire the Joker to clip Batman's wings permanently. This simply gives the Joker an excuse to play vicious mind games with all involved, especially Dent, who is admirably portrayed by Eckhart. Ditto for other thespians, including Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, Caine and Gyllenhaal.

Nolan, who reinvigorated the Caped Crusader franchise with "Batman Begins" in 2005, sets up the possibility of another installment. No surprise there. The problem is he'll have trouble finding a villain as monstrous and mesmerizing as Ledger's Joker. One would have thought following in the footsteps of Jack Nicholson's Joker in Tim Burton's "Batman" would have been foolhardy.

After watching "The Dark Knight," one knows that following in Ledger's footsteps would be insane.

MetroWest Daily News

"The Dark Knight"

Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal

Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and some menace) 152 minutes

Directed and co-written by Christopher Nolan