Words By: Jack Dawson
Big Eyes is a seriously good film, and arguably the best film of Tim Burton’s career. Returning to the biopic genre for the first time since 1995’s Ed Wood, Tim Burton has made an engaging story that blends his talent for stunning visuals and orchestrated attacks at societal norms, which is notable considering the rather lacklustre results of his Alice in Wonderland, and Dark Shadows. But before we talk about Tim Burton’s best efforts, let’s go over the film.
Big Eyes, which as the opening text tells us is ‘based on true events’, is about the painter of the infamously kitsch ‘Big Eyes’ paintings, Margaret Keane. After divorcing her husband, Margaret and her daughter move to San Francisco, where she soon meets and marries a charming fellow artist named Walter Keane. After Walter successfully sells several of her paintings, he begins taking credit for them. The rest of the film follows Margaret’s struggle to assert her ownership of her own art and the growing instability of Walter’s entitlement, with only occasional breaks into typical surreal Burtonesque sequences.
Tim Burton is an interesting Director, to say the least. His visual style of exaggerated architecture and a curious blend of soft pastels and stark black is the most obvious difference between him and many for Hollywood’s best and brightest. Then there is the production posse that he has carefully assembled over the years, including Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, Danny Elfman and so on. And finally there are the stories he likes to tell, featuring social misfits who struggle against an aggressively conformist society, often incorporating elements of the macabre in the process.
But these distinctive touches have been abused and over-saturated in Burton’s recent works, to the point where he has experienced quite a backlash. Alice in Wonderland was confused and lifeless, Dark Shadows was both unfunny and disjointed, and even works like Batman and Edward Scissorhands have come under fire for begetting many of the sins of Burton’s later works, such as an irreverent attitude towards the source material of his adaptations or the rather petty swipes he takes at ‘mainstream’ culture. The latter is especially egregious thanks to the widespread commercial success he’s attained, which means that his own work has become part of a trendsetting conformist mainstream.
Big Eyes is a fantastic step in the right direction however, and stands as one of Tim Burton’s best films. He mostly opts for a bright colour scheme this time around, though the Big Eyes paintings themselves still serve as an outlet for his flair for the eerie. The different locations still look like storybook pictures, and there’s even a brief return of Burton’s pastel suburbia in the opening scenes.
But it’s the story of this film that really shines.
Burton turns his aforementioned critical eye to conformist society to the inherit misogyny of the 1950s, and instead of attacking people who dislike atypical behaviour or who dress in unfashionable pastel clothing, he instead attacks the entitled exploitative influence of misogyny and how Women are often treated in abusive relationships. And also Modern Art (or at least Modern Art in the late 50’s and early 60’s).
It’s a target worth attacking, Margaret is never framed as unreasonable or unjustly angry at the men in her life, and the film takes pains to emphasize how much pressure was placed on women at the time. When she seeks guidance from a church, she is given the useless advice to defer to the man of the household. When she tries to explain what her art means to her, her prospective client belittles her and then clumsily comes on to her. And when she voices her very legitimate concerns to Walter, he brushes her off as ‘crazy’ ‘miserable’, and ‘selfish’.
Christoph Waltz’s Walter Keane isn’t presented as obviously evil, he is immensely charming and consumed with the desire to be successful. His own train of logic is understandable to us, though it doesn’t render his actions any less reprehensible or abusive. And that’s how a lot of domestic abusers function in real life, with equal parts charm and passive-aggressiveness.
In a way, Tim Burton doesn’t need to engage in elaborate visuals or splatterblood horror to create an eerie and nightmarish landscape, Margaret Keane’s isolated life of deceit and veiled threats is nightmarish enough.
I realise I’ve talked mostly about Tim Burton during this review, but his prior works provides a useful context for analysing this film and how it distinguishes itself. It’s an excellent drama, with terrific performances that are assisted by an excellently paced film. But by far my favourite part of this film is the same Tim Burton characteristic that made Ed Wood such a good biopic, it’s Empathy. While not every character is sympathetic or likeable, all of them have their own reasonable agendas and their own reasons for pursuing the insane pursuit of creating art.
And as it turns out, Empathy is a far better ingredient for a good film than misdirected cynicism.