Big Eyes, the new film by director Tim Burton, tells the true story of Margaret Keane, an artist most well-known for her paintings of children with enormous, disproportionate eyes. Thanks to the work of her husband, Walter Keane, these paintings became hugely famous in the 50’s and 60’s and amassed great wealth for Margaret and her husband. Problem is, Walter Keane also took credit for the paintings, claiming that he was the one who created them. A lie which Margaret participated in for over a decade.
This is a story of Margaret Keane’s struggle with her overbearing, abusive husband. Walter forces Margaret to accept the lie he has created; telling her that he’s better at selling the paintings and that nobody would be interested in buying art from a woman anyway, forcing her to seclude herself and continuously churn out paintings for which she will receive no recognition. Later, as Walter increasingly slips into insanity, he begins to physically and mentally abuse Margaret whenever she threatens to expose their lie. It’s also a story about a woman fighting against the male-dominated system that gives Walter his power. When Margaret attends church to confess that Walter coaxed her into lying to her daughter, the priest tells her that the man is the head of the household and she should trust his judgement.
The problem is, both of the lead actors appear to be playing in different movies.
Amy Adams plays Margaret Keane exactly like you would expect from the plot summary above. As her husband and the guilt of their lie continue to beat down Margaret, you see the toll it takes. Her features become more blank, she shakes visibly, retreats away from her friends (and her daughter). She smokes and drinks in excess. But there is always a hint of fiery determination behind her eyes. Margaret will comply with her husband up to a point, but she’s not a weak person. She’s smart, gifted and passionate about her art. It’s a layered, dramatic performance from Adams.
On the other side is Christoph Walz as Walter Keane. Walter is crazy and abusive to be sure, but Waltz plays him as if the movie is a comedy. The impact of Walter’s threats are never felt to the extent that they should be because they’re played for laughs. When Walter threatens to hire a hitman to kill Margaret, the audience laughs at Walter’s ridiculousness. But he just threatened to have his wife murdered! What’s worse, Waltz’s performance in the entire last act of the film is complete comedy. What should be a triumphant moment for Margaret, finally escaping her bonds and showing the world what she can do, is instead another moment to make fun of Walter Keane.
I love Waltz; he’s a skilled actor, but this performance doesn’t work in this story. It’s hard to blame the actor. I believe Waltz is playing the role as directed by Tim Burton. Honestly, it feels like Burton is asking Waltz to mirror his performance from 2009’s Inglourious Basterds; exaggerated charm and generosity masking dangerous, murderous intent under the surface. But Tim Burton is not Quentin Tarantino and Walter Keane is not Hans Landa. Waltz plays Keane as if he’s a buffoon. Adams plays Margaret as if her husband is a monster. The incongruity between these two performances confuses the movie’s tone and themes.
Cinematically, the film is beautiful. Burton plays with overly saturated colors to create gorgeous external shots. He likes to keep the camera stationary in these shots, which makes them resemble canvas paintings. He uses the same effect in the opposite way inside Margaret’s studio, her prison. Turning the colors down to match the dark, crying, big eyed children she creates. But Tim Burton just can’t help himself either. There are random shots where Margaret starts seeing real people with the giant eyes from her paintings. These shots feel weird and out-of-place. It feels like Burton just needed to do something weird just to do it.
The movie also randomly features voice over at the beginning, middle and end by the reporter who wrote about Margaret and Walter’s story. This is another decision that doesn’t make sense to me. It seems to structure the film as if it’s a long news article, but nothing else in the movie matches this. Most of the information gained from the voice over is extraneous and could easily be shown in other ways. Why is it here?
Tim Burton is an avid collector of the big eyed children paintings. He clearly loves the artist and wanted to bring attention to the incredible story behind this woman and her work. Big Eyes does have an interesting story, but weird directorial and structural choices keep the movie from being great. The end result is a beautiful, but inconsistent movie.