It’s such a relief to see Tim Burton direct a real movie again. 2003’s Big Fish was a culmination of the directors’ talent as he blended his fantastical, dreamlike imagery with a heartfelt father-son story that also served as a thoughtful exploration on the power of storytelling. Since then Burton devolved into a parody of himself to where I will never be able to hear his name without thinking of this video. After repurposing other tales to suit his whims, Burton has returned to reality and delivered his best movie since Big Fish with Big Eyes. Although the movie bears none of Burton’s signature flourishes, it’s refreshing to see the director take a step back to focus more on characters and themes, which provides a rewarding exploration of gender roles, authorship, and mass consumption of art.
In North Beach in 1958, Margaret (Amy Adams) tries to make money selling her distinctive art, which features children with gigantic eyes. When she’s wooed by and marries the charming, charismatic artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), the two try to sell their paintings, but Margaret’s pieces are the ones that take off. Because “Keane” is signed on her work, Walter takes credit for the paintings and convinces Margaret that no one would buy art done by a woman. Walter’s wheeling and dealing brings the couple financial riches, but Margaret must hide away and churn out paintings. Eventually, Margaret can no longer stand being pushed aside, and attempts to prove she’s the true artist and Walter is a fraud.
I’ll say up front that simply by virtue of being a man, Tim Burton may not be the ideal choice to tell Margaret’s story since her conflict came from having a man drown out her voice. However, this isn’t the same scenario since Margaret wasn’t cut out of the filmmaking process (the closing credits show a photo of the artist smiling next to Adams). The sad reality is that a female director possibly couldn’t get this movie made, which inadvertently highlights one of the themes of the story, namely that women shouldn’t be taken seriously as artists because of their gender.
However, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski‘s script doesn’t offer the easy answer of, “She was a woman and never would have been taken seriously no matter what,” because that would mean the duplicitous Walter was right, and perhaps he was to a degree. When we see Margaret try to sell non-“Big Eyes” paintings under her own name at a gallery that also features the popular Big Eyes pieces, her work is overlooked. However, Margaret also lacks Walter’s knack for salesmanship. She’s not aggressive enough, a flaw that’s thankfully not applied to her entire gender as we see her daughter Jane (Madeleline Arthur) and friend DeAnn (Krysten Ritter) try to protect the timid Margaret, who is in a distinct kind of abusive relationship.
We typically associate domestic abuse with physical violence, but domestic abuse is psychologically rooted in breaking someone down and making the victim feel dependent on the abuser. Some could argue that Margaret was complicit in defrauding the public by refusing to speak out, but that feels like victim blaming. It would be comforting for the audience if Walter was some brazenly abusive jerk, but Waltz’s performance is so damn charming that it’s difficult to hate him, which is part of the character’s power. He’s charismatic, conniving, and convincing, so while Margaret theoretically could have broken her silence, Burton makes it clear that Walter dominated her in multiple ways.
Equally unnerving but also fascinating is how the movie raises the question of authorship since no one doubts that Walter is the artist, and should it really matter if he isn’t? “I’m a Keane; you’re a Keane,” Walter tells Margaret. To the public, they just want the paintings, and they don’t really care about the full signature. No one raises the need to investigate, especially when Walter has hack columnist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) in his pocket (Dick also provides sporadic narration, which feels entirely unnecessarily). Plagiarism is a serious ethical offense, but if people were gleefully buying the Big Eyes paintings, then does the public seriously consider art in the first place? As critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp) wryly observes, “Mr. Keane is why society needs critics—to protect society.” As a critic, I admittedly take comfort in that aggrandizing statement, but I admire Burton for not using his movie as a platform for personal vendettas, especially since he hasn’t been a critical darling for some time.
The director seems more concerned with giving Margaret her due because he clearly respects her work even though he hides his own style for this movie. Big Eyes is Burton’s most anonymous work since Planet of the Apes, but unlike that film, which felt like a loveless marriage between studio and filmmaker, you can feel the director’s sympathy for Margaret and her circumstances. “Art is personal,” Margaret explains, and Walter seems too obsessed with commerce to understand that.
Burton is an odd messenger for a statement about personal art considering that he frequently adapts other people’s work rather than use original screenplays (his last one was 2005’s Corpse Bride), but Big Eyes could charitably be considered an acknowledgement of his recent filmography. Then again, the movie could also be viewed as strikingly oblivious and painfully hypocritical, especially when you have characters saying lines like “Art should elevate, not pander.” Given the director’s clear compassion for Margaret and showing how she’s slowly dying inside, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
As always, it’s difficult to separate Burton from his art even when he’s trying to lay low, and in this way, Big Eyes gives him an unusual affinity with Margaret Keane with both artists keeping their heads down. But with Keane, she was a victim of her marriage and era, whereas Burton wants to identify with her status as an outsider. Burton can never completely share Margaret’s struggles, and I do wonder if a female director would have been more appropriate and better suited to handle this material. But Margaret Keane’s sad tale has been locked away for far too long, and while the man unlocking the door may be an unexpected choice, he’s showing us a story worth seeing.