There’s something unsettling about Walter Keane. His limbs are long and gangly, his face bent in a perpetual, twisted smile like a cheshire cat with gigantism; Richard Kiel by way of Lewis Carroll. He has a way of moving his body and head so as to physically dominate people he talks to. Is it any wonder that he was such a magnetic personality, such a dollar-store Casanova that he could pull off one of the biggest cases of art fraud in the 20th century? For almost a decade he took credit for his wife Margaret Keane’s paintings of women and children with massive, watery eyes, building a massive fortune and establishing himself as one of the great American artists of the mid-twentieth century. And though Tim Burton’s film Big Eyes is ostensibly Margaret’s story, it is dwarfed by Christoph Waltz’s performance as Walter.
Margaret (Amy Adams) first meets Walter while selling caricatures on the street. He quickly woos her with tales of his exploits as a painter during his residency with the French Left Bank in Paris. That he was demanding $35 for his mediocre Parisian street scenes while she was lucky to get $1 a pop should have been the first warning sign. That he proposes to her days after they meet should have been the second. That he has slept with almost everyone in the San Francisco art scene should have been the third. But she quickly accepts his proposal when she learns that her ex-husband is suing for custody of their daughter Jane (Delaney Raye). After all, as a single mother living in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s America, she has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the legal battle without remarrying.
When Margaret’s big-eyed waif paintings become an underground hit, he quickly claims credit for the paintings as the artist. At first it seems like a sound business move: people just don’t buy “lady art.” But the facade becomes suffocating as the years go on, “Walter’s” paintings become a hit, and their fortune is made; a fortune which Walter is always quick to remind Margaret will come crashing down the moment the public learns who is really doing the paintings. Adams is brilliant in her depiction of an introverted housewife slaving away under the domineering personality of her husband. By the time she flees her home with her daughter from an insanely jealous, almost certainly homicidal Walter, we see echoes of Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance in both her face and mannerisms.
One of the centerpieces of the film is the outrageous trial between Margaret and Walter over the true ownership of the paintings where, in a stroke of narcissistic idiocy, Walter insists that he act as his own legal counsel. One absurd sequence where Walter dramatically shuffles back and forth from the bar to the witness stand as he cross-examines himself could have easily drifted into the realm of farce, a move which would have been fatal to the overall film. But Burton’s direction makes this seem like a natural, even inevitable development given Walter’s personality. The moment when the beleaguered judge (James Saito) reveals his brilliant method of determining the true artist was one of the only times I can remember an audience actually applauding a film before the end credits.
That Big Eyes is the best film Burton has directed in almost a decade is no exaggeration. Here is the careful eye responsible for such films as Edward Scissorhands (1990), Ed Wood (1994), and Big Fish (2003). His fetish for all things visually perpendicular is toned down but not absent, allowing Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s ferocious screenplay to tell the story without becoming overburdened with stylistic excess. That Walter is not shown to be a two-dimensional monster is the film’s greatest achievement. Instead, he was a weak, insecure man who saw his opportunity to seize greatness and took it. One of the most masterful scenes in the film involves Walter and Margaret working together to create a fictionalized backstory for the inspirations behind the paintings. It is stunning to consider that it took Tim Burton, a man dismissed by most critics and audiences as an artistic has-been, to give Christoph Waltz what could quite possibly be his most nuanced English-language performance since he broke into Hollywood courtesy of Quentin Tarantino.
Mr. Burton, as a man who grew up cherishing movies like Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), let me be the first to say that it’s good to have you back.