I never quite realized the magnitude of what we lost when Heath Ledger died until nearly two years later when I saw Candy, one of his final films, in a random retrospective at a local film festival. Like everyone else I relished the technically demanding stunt performance he pulled off with the Joker, and appreciated his subtle, finely-tuned portrait of repression in Brokeback Mountain. But his performance in this little-seen Australian indie was about as far away from those two performances as you could get – and, I think, deeper and tougher than either of them.
Candy, if you haven't seen it, is a pretty familiar travelogue-through-junkie-hell, like Requiem for a Dream with a romantic bent. Ledger plays Dan, an aspiring poet madly in love with Abbie Cornish's beautiful, charming title character. (Dig that brilliant opening scene, a literally dizzying shot of the two of them on the tilt-a-whirl – an almost too-perfect encapsulation of their relationship.) But in addition to being fond of Candy, he's also fond of heroin. And before we know it (we don't see how it happens), so is she, and the two of them enter a death spiral of addiction, poverty and misery.
The movie can be a bit overwrought – at one point, Dan makes a comically ill-fated attempt to turn tricks for money, and the climax is like something out of a bad horror movie. But Ledger somehow keeps it heartbreakingly grounded. I like to say that one measure of a great actor is the ability to create a character that we can believe exists outside the bounds of the screenplay. One look at Ledger's face in Candy tells us not only who Dan is, but the kind of person he was, and the kind of person he wants to be.
Ledger has never had a better opportunity to demonstrate his range than here. He does so not just throughout the film, but within a single scene, and even a single moment. As Dan and Candy bicker, fight, scream, and make up; as they vow to resist their addiction and then succumb; he is needy, soft, cruel, vile, defiant, mischievous, depressed – sometimes in quick succession, and sometimes at once. It all culminates in an ending that's a delicate balancing act between overwhelming sadness and a glimmer of hope, hinged (successfully) on Ledger's ability to breathe life into a romantic cliché.
The Dark Knight and Brokeback Mountain will, it appears, become the two primary Heath Ledger reference points. Understandable. But for a display of his sheer virtuosic talent – acting chops free of hype and mythologized significance surrounding the roles themselves – I think that the right destination is this little-seen gem.