This time next year, if there is any justice left in this baffling business called show, Jackie Earle Haley will be reaping the same kind of universal accolades that followed the late Heath Ledger when he starred as the ultimate sociopath, The Joker, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight – and here’s hoping that the middle aged former child star does so without all the tabloid hysteria of a publicity fueled (or God forbid, posthumous) Oscar campaign. In 2008, Ledger’s unhinged criminal, compelled by nothing other than his innate need for chaos, transformed the Batman franchise into a true psychological thriller. There was never a moment’s doubting the character’s motives – he was insane. But Haley’s latest turn as Alan Moore’s anarchic anti-hero Rorschach in the big screen adaptation of Watchmen is every bit as bugfuck – and beautiful.
As our main protagonist, our personal private investigator and overall window into the Watchmen world, Walter Kovacs (otherwise known as the aforementioned masked vigilante) is a truly disturbed and uniquely fashioned personality. While part of him plays like an FBI profile gone exploitative, there are several, more solid dimensions to the character’s complicated arc. For his part, Rorschach is the last outlaw, the rebel who refuses to drop his caped persona, no matter the law or the legal ramifications of violating same. He is brutal and unapologetic, staring justice square in the face while using whatever means necessary to get his advantage or point across. He refuses to back down, taking the death of The Comedian as a sign that his own lifeline is growing short. By decipher the clues as to who killed the aging icon, Rorschach hopes to find meaning in his own isolated ideal – and the purpose of the once prevalent superhero situation.
In this regard, the man in the ever-shifting mask is the prohibitive polar opposite of the nameless villain with a penchant for perverting everything around him. The Joker is perhaps the most symbolic of Batman’s many villains, since he wirewalks on both the notion of humor and horror quite effectively. It’s the same kind of mixture that makes up the Caped Crusader’s demeanor – especially in Nolan’s version of the comic. Batman wants Gotham City to return to some semblance of normalcy, to get the communal courage to take back the streets and stomp out the various crime lords who appear to rule reality. The Joker wants something similar – he exists for no one but himself – but in his version of the metropolis, Id has replaced Ego as the main means of expression. Random acts of incoherent menace will be his chief way of achieving said aims.
In this regard – the sadistic desire to harm – Rorschach and The Joker are very much alike. Both even have baffling back stories that try and suggest the reason for their simmering psychosis. Of the two, our Watchman’s is the better, since we get to witness how the life of a prostitute’s son turns into a man on a murderous mission. This is especially true when Kovacs speaks to a prison doctor about his past. Indeed, Rorschach’s investigation and “resolution” of a missing child case is more than memorable. It bristles with a kind of cruelty that a certain clown (and scared) faced trickster would totally appreciate. Similarly, The Joker’s take on certain mobsters, self-absorbed and bloated on their own sense of supremacy, would definitely make his ink blotted buddy smile – if only for a second.
But there are real differences between Rorschach and The Joker, differences that go beyond personality and dig deep within the concept of each character’s humanity. Both are philosophical to a fault, but only the former finds a principle behind the prostylitizing. He may often sound like Travis Bickle with a huge hard-on for righting wrongs, but Rorschach is all about returning balance to a world gone wonky. The latter, on the other hand, just wants to tip things over the edge once and for all. He will burn money for no other reason than he can, going so far as to destroy a hospital as a test of personal will. One has filled a prison with his purpose. The other sees nothing wrong with pressing an inmate’s moral mantle against those in the supposedly civilized outside world.
As far as being a complete bad-ass, though, the comic book movie may have a new champion. While Ledger truly turned The Joker into the kind of man who clearly “doesn’t have a plan”, Haley’s Rorschach is so multi-dimensional it hurts. He’s part hero, part villain, part victim, part abuser. He’s torn and broken inside, preferring his mask to a life outside his identity. When he is framed for the murder of dying nemesis Moloch the Mystic, his only concern is his “face”, the expressionistic cloth that covers his frightened, fragile façade. During his interrogation scenes, Haley’s efforts are heartbreaking. He gives Rorschach the kind of dignity we just don’t expect from a psychologically unbalanced individual. Through the actor’s expressionistic eyes, we witness a lifetime of struggle and striving. In his broken, beleaguered words, we understand everything The Joker misses. Crime may pay for a while, but the ultimate price comes for those trying to stop it once and for all. But don’t take this as a sign of weakness. When push comes to slaughter, Haley’s Rorschach rips people apart with the best of them.
Again, if there is any justice, Watchmen‘s arrival as a media event will start the Jackie Earle Haley nomination ball rolling. His work is just as strong – and sometimes stronger – than Ledger’s, and his character is not just some loose canon bit of grandstanding. The Academy did indeed do the right thing by giving the late actor his due. Turns in Monster’s Ball, Brokeback Mountain, and I’m Not There mandated as much. But Haley has the same strong performance past to draw on – and he also has a previous nom for his sensational comeback as “reformed” pedophile Ronald James McGorvey in Todd Field’s Little Children. It can’t be stressed enough – Haley dominates a film filled with amazing, accurate portrayals. He’s the reason Watchmen holds together over its long, elaborate running time. When he’s onscreen, we’re safe. When he’s gone, things threaten to spin out of control.
In a perfect world, Watchmen will walk away with much of the pop culture debate for the next few months, giving way to Summer’s popcorn purpose before re-rearing its raison d’etra again for the eventual DVD/Blu-ray run. Within all that commercial sturm and drang, outside the natural tendency to cast assertions as facts and opinions as truths, there will hopefully be a discussion about Jackie Earle Haley, his turn on the oddly appealing psychopath, and how it compares to ones that have come before. And inside this conversation, between the exaggeration and the evisceration, someone will see the similarities to last year’s equally enticing event movie and draw the only logical conclusion possible. If Heath Ledger deserves awards recognition, so does Haley. Rorschach and The Joker are cut from the same cloth – and it’s some might messy material indeed.