‘Big Eyes’ Review: Oculus Grift
It may be difficult to watch Big Eyes without pondering the unfortunate career trajectory of Tim Burton, a filmmaker with distinct and beautiful sensibilities, but who frequently uses them to sell studio products instead of telling great stories. Films like Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have made him an industry powerhouse, but films like Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands make him meaningful. His best films idolize and legitimize genuine outsiders. His worst films feel like they were made by a committee at Hot Topic headquarters.
Big Eyes is one of Tim Burton’s best movies. It is a portrait of an artist in crisis, forced to deny their personal attachment to their work and subjugate themselves to shameless marketers who care more about the sale than what they’re selling. It is told with sensitivity, lovingly establishing the process by which a talented person expresses themselves, and also illustrating with horror what happens when they give up all their rights to their creations.
So it perhaps makes sense that Big Eyes feels like one of Burton’s most personal films. The story of painter Margaret Keane, whose husband Walter took credit for her popular big-eyed “waifs,” could be that of any artist, but translates in Big Eyes to a potent individual drama of psychological abuse set amidst the shifting mid-century landscape of domesticity and popular art.
Amy Adams plays Margaret Keane, fleeing an abusive marriage with her daughter in tow, finding no success in San Francisco as the painter of sad moppets with huge, expressive eyes. With few prospects for a single mother or a female artist, or for women in general, she swiftly agrees to marry the charming Walter, played by Christoph Waltz, a painter who lacks talent but who knows how to glad hand. He can’t sell his own paintings, but he can sell Margaret’s, and soon he begins claiming her work as his own, gradually pushing her up into the attic where she does all of the work, so he can take the credit.
Big Eyes sucks us into Margaret’s submission skillfully, making it abundantly clear how a woman with this much to offer can convince herself – with Walter’s prodding – that it’s perfectly reasonable to give up her life’s work. It just seems to be the way things are, after all. No one is interested in female artists (except when they are), and women should be subservient to all the men in their lives (except there’s no good reason for it).
The push and pull of common sense and social expectation eats at Margaret Keane, portrayed in an impressive performance by Amy Adams as a woman whose confidence has waned but refuses to go away completely. As Walter Keane, Christoph Waltz dominates the film by design. Walter takes up so much space that there’s hardly any left for Margaret, who struggles to hold onto her identity as her husband leeches away more and more of her strength.
As a domestic drama Big Eyes is a nightmare, and the culmination of Walter’s abuse is Tim Burton at his most disturbing. As a filmmaker he seems to revel in unearthing something lovely inside of ugliness, but here he has isolated the ugliness inside of a likable facade. Walter is either a playful tornado and a destructive force, depending on the whims of his fragile ego, and although Waltz is endlessly entertaining when his character is in “schmooze” mode he never seems more than a moment away from betraying his angry juvenile neediness.
But as a depiction of the artist in a state of crisis, Big Eyes truly excels, using the hallmarks of backwards social conventions as a way to illustrate the many deficiencies in a marketplace filled with indefensibly rigid beliefs on what is right and what is good, and in which the appearance of success might as well be the real thing. You could brush the snoot off the shoulders of gallery owners and art critics in Big Eyes, who either don’t understand Margaret Keane’s expressions or are never given the tools necessary to understand them thanks to Walter’s con artist manipulations.
And falling prey to all of these men is a woman with a powerful voice who spends most of Big Eyes unable to use it. It takes a remarkable actress to keep a heroine alive in story that relies on her total submission. Amy Adams sells the turmoil beautifully, letting Margaret Keane’s strength emerge when no one else notices, and keeping the audience thoroughly involved with her cruel and increasingly absurd professional strife.
Tim Burton tends to portray domesticity with no small amount of camp, but in Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice he seemed to at least like most of his unwittingly superficial characters. In Big Eyes he finds more to critique. This version of the seemingly perfect household is full of sunlight until you find yourself behind locked doors, imprisoned by systemic negativity and a lifetime of unthinkable decisions that seemed reasonable at the time, in that place, when a woman like Margaret Keane was forced against her will to simply take what she could get.
And yet, although there’s an unmistakable air of frustration and pain in Tim Burton’s latest, Big Eyes is not a grim motion picture. It is an inspiring story of a woman who proved her worth against powerful social and professional institutions that were specifically designed to make her feel powerless. It is the story of an artist whose work had been reduced to dollar signs before she finally picked herself up and reclaimed that work as her personal statement. And, perhaps appropriately, it’s an incredible return to form for Tim Burton, who once again has found an outsider hero worth filming, and who here does some of his finest work in bringing her to life.