Those disproportionately large and creepy eyed children with those vacant expressions staring out from the canvas. We all know the art even if you’re not familiar with the artist’s name. Never considered high art, but it was quite popular at the time and certainly unique enough to influence a ‘look’ that became a commercial success.
Tim Burton’s BIG EYES (2014) takes a look at the artist’s journey who created such recognizable art. Margaret (portrayed solidly by Amy Adams) leaves her first husband with her young daughter in tow. She escapes to San Francisco to find a new life but it’s the mid fifties so it’s challenging for a single mom in a sexist world. She barely scrapes by with her only ‘work’ experience being her art skills of drawing portraits of her daughter and some art classes under her belt.
Then she meets the charming Walter Keane (portrayed brilliantly by Christoph Waltz). He eventually claims to be more of a “Sunday artist” with more of a passion for promotion and sales. She finds herself in a position to accept his sudden marriage proposal although she barely knows him, when her first husband threatens to take custody due to ‘instability as a struggling single mother.’
Walter is an enterprising fellow despite his inability get any interest for his own art from local galleries. He’s persistent though and finds an opportunity with his wife’s art. But this opportunity and their subsequent rise to fame (without revealing too many spoilers and details) allows Walter’s true colors to shine through as the slimy shyster that he is. The climb to notoriety is paved in a trail of lies. Lies that Walter is very comfortable in spinning but Margaret finds increasingly suffocating to continue. She lies to her daughter, and to everyone, to create this fraudulent web of deceit.
As an artist, she is losing her soul. As a woman, she has finds herself again in a similarly compromising and weakened position as what led her to leave her first husband. It takes a stronger threat, the very livelihood of her daughter, to thrust her into action. She finally leaves Walter, escaping to Hawaii. He continues his intimidation from afar, insisting that she continue the lies that he solely profits or he won’t grant her a divorce. She complies initially then is inspired via a new-found interest in religion to stand up to him and expose the truth.
From the onset, one of the most surprising things about BIG EYES (2014) is the direction. Tim Burton has a unique style to all of his films, that you can quickly point out as that ‘Tim Burton look.” Other than the creepy and dark ‘Keane art’ eyes, or perhaps a brief peek at 50’s suburbia style that may be seen (although more overstated) reflected in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990), this film is void of any predictable Burton style trappings, which is a rather refreshing change. Here, Burton seems to self-censor his normally heavy hand of that ever-expected style. He focuses more on the story with an appropriate-to-the-period style blending in naturally.
As a result, the biggest focus shines through in the performances mainly Amy Adams and most certainly Christoph Waltz. There are some nice small roles too such as Jason Schwartzman as the brutally honest gallery owner, Terence Stamp as the high-brow art critic, James Saito as the no-nonsense Hawaiian judge and Krysten Ritter as the on-again, off-again friend. Adams is authentic and sympathetic as the 50’s mother who gradually makes a well-paced evolution of compromises and finds herself at the crossroads of sexism vs. survival and on the fence of sacrificing ideals vs. empowerment.
Waltz is convincing as the snake-oil salesman masquerading as an artist. He is believably charismatic as the wolf-in-sheep-clothing enough to see how Margaret could transform from falling for such an unethical character to her repeated forgiving, and even agreeing to losing her identity. At moments, she almost begins to believe the lies are real or somehow in her best interest, as Margaret works hard to support the charade that chips away all of her self-respect and worth. It’s astounding what the human spirit is willing to tolerate even while it faces its own extinction. Everyone has a breaking point they say and it made for an interesting story to see how far it took for Margaret Keane to discover hers.