Even without Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, Christopher Nolan's pitch-black sequel to BATMAN BEGINS (2005) would be a tour de force. But Ledger's mesmerizingly damaged agent provocateur is the film's dark heart, a presence so malevolently unpredictable that it remains palpable even when he's not on screen. Millionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) continues to live his double life as the crusading Batman, but at an ever-escalating personal cost: He's displaced and all but alone. Wayne Manor has been burned to the ground, forcing him into an anonymous high-rise apartment, and childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over from the vapid Katie Holmes) has taken up with crusading district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) who's conducting his war on crime, by the book and in the bright light of day. Faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and Wayne Industries' factotum Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) continue to support Bruce's lonely battle against criminals, but Gotham City is still overrun with warring gangs. Public opinion regarding the dark angel is polarized -- grassroots champion of the average citizen or dangerous vigilante? – and the headline-grabbing exploits of a pack of untrained, hot-headed imitators who've sprung up in the Batman's shadow only muddy the waters further. Succumbing to the unrelenting pressure, Batman and longtime ally Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) agree to work with Dent, an arrangement that brings impressive short-term results but sets the stage for an anarchic reign of terror orchestrated by the wild card in the underworld deck: The Joker (Ledger). Having made himself persona non grata among thieves by robbing the banks that launder and safeguard their ill-gotten gains, the Joker then proposes that they all work together to take back the night. Written by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan (David S. Goyer gets co-story credit), the film juggles multiple intertwined narratives – Batman's dark night of the soul, the Joker's machinations, the rise and fall of Dent, the criminal super-alliance – without feeling bloated or unfocused; its 142 minutes fly by. Nolan stages some stunning action sequences – the opening heist is worthy of Michael Mann – and maintains a convincing atmosphere of apocalyptic paranoia; Gotham City is under siege, people are genuinely frightened and life-or-death situations can go either way. But most importantly, he gives his top-notch cast plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters. That Ledger stands out in such a powerhouse ensemble is a tribute to his radically unhinged interpretation of a familiar character: The lank hair tinged seaweed green, the darting tongue and faint lisp that call constant attention to the ghastly rictus of his mouth, the nightmarishly smudged make up… taken together, they make previous Jokers feel like, well, jokes.