Looking back at the breadth of Tim Burton’s career, it’s easy to identify 1994’s Ed Wood as one of the filmmaker’s greatest triumphs. While the more wild aspects of the director’s personal visual style are turned down, his same weirdo sensibilities are still very much alive in the movie, as he tells a story about some fantastic odd-ball characters while saying something about the deep value of artistic expression and personal passion. Twenty years later, Burton has once again channeled that specific energy to make his latest feature, Big Eyes - and the result is unquestionably the best film that he has made in years.
It certainly helps that the new project has reteamed Burton with Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, but really it just feels like the director actually has something to say with the strange tale of artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), who spent years living in anonymity while her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz) took all the credit for her immensely popular paintings of young waifs with big eyes. Set in the 1960s art world of San Francisco, the film opens the door for Burton to explore a whole host of important societal issues and questions – from a woman’s second class citizenship during the era to the determination of what defines ‘art’ – and the director successfully engages with all of it while telling a well-told, character-driven story.
There was a tremendous inner turmoil that existed within Margaret Keane during her time with Walter. She hated that she wasn’t getting proper credit for her paintings as they became a phenomenon, but she also understood that that success wouldn’t necessarily be possible without a man taking the credit. As you might imagine, getting this fantastic, dramatic conflict across requires an actor up to the task of a very nuanced performance, and Amy Adams is phenomenal in the part. As she is locked away in her art studio and hidden away from the world, there is a war between the joy of her art and the sadness of her life boiling just below the surface, and Adams brings it all to life with her eyes alone in some scenes. And while Margaret’s work may be historically kitsch, it’s her immediately recognizable drive to put brush to canvas that makes the audience want to see her overcome the incredible amount of bullshit in her life and get what she is due despite all odds.
What really exacerbated the conflict within Margaret Keane is just how good Walter was at both his wife’s misappropriated artwork as well as himself, and in Big Eyes Christoph Waltz finds the character by putting on the same kind of antagonistic charisma that led us all to first fall in love with him in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Of course, he’s not Nazi-level evil here, but it’s fascinating to watch him surf the various personality levels of this smarmy, eccentric, huckster character, and it’s downright incredible to watch him emotionally turn on a dime. There are scenes that begin with the audience smiling and laughing at Walter’s on-screen presence, but within a few moments his intensity and anger can turn that reaction into fear. The truth is that the audience is never quite sure exactly how far Walter would be willing to go to keep his and his wife’s secret, and Waltz fully delivers that edge.
In recent years, Tim Burton’s unique vision has been bogged down in making blockbuster adaptations, but Big Eyes not only delivers a unique and compelling story, but also a set of great lead performances and a subtle infusion of the director's own sensibilities and style while deftly balancing light and dark tones. It’s a wonderful move for the director’s career, and a fun, thought-provoking story for the winter season.