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The Mastery of Christian Bale, in Seven Charts

After rewatching every movie in which the ‘Ford v Ferrari’ actor plays a major role—yes, even ‘Terminator Salvation’—our writer presents graphical proof of his excellence

Ringer illustration

About 45 minutes into 2013’s American Hustle, Christian Bale has an argument with Bradley Cooper. Bale’s character, a chubby and balding scam artist named Irving Rosenfeld, is mad that Cooper’s character, an FBI agent named Richie DiMaso hoping to make a name for himself, is going about a grift the wrong way. (Irving has been forced into scammer servitude by DiMaso because DiMaso caught Irving in a scam. DiMaso told Irving he could either [a] help DiMaso catch other bigger criminals in scams, or [b] go to prison.) Rosenfeld and DiMaso say several different things to each other during their disagreement, but Rosenfeld cuts DiMaso’s legs off with the following lines. He says of DiMaso’s hustling ability:

“You will never do it properly because you got too much government attitude to be small and sleek. I’m like the fucking Viet Cong, man. All right. I’m in, and I’m out. I was there the whole time. You don’t know it. All right. That’s the fucking art of becoming somebody who people pin their beliefs … and their dreams on. You can’t do it.”

It’s a good quote in the context of the movie (it’s an exactly correct assessment; DiMaso ends up becoming so taken with the idea of becoming a famous FBI agent that he doesn’t realize Rosenfeld has made him the mark of his final scam), but it’s an even better quote in consideration of Bale as a Hollywood talent. Because that’s precisely what Bale does as an actor. He immerses himself so fully into his roles that he allows you to imprint onto him whatever you want him to be, or need him to be. And sometimes that immersion is a literal thing, like when he turned his body into a whisper of itself for his portrayal of a factory worker with severe insomnia for 2004’s The Machinist. But other times it’s a figurative thing, which is even more impressive because in those instances he takes his regular self and his regular face and his regular body and he twists up only his speech patterns and his posture and his general vibe. And still, despite everything mostly looking the same, he’s able to create a totally different person.

(The best way to peek at his ability to make very similar things feel like very different things is to just watch the two movies he did in 2000. He played Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and he played Walter Wade in Shaft. Both Bateman and Wade were self-important yuppies guilty of murder. And both Bateman and Wade lived in New York. And both Bateman and Wade had comparable lifestyles and comparable overall aesthetics. But they felt so, So, SO different. Wade felt oily, and scumbaggy, and that was about where his emotional character arc ended. Bateman felt like an abyss, and like a vessel for something far more nefarious than any regular human could ever generate on their own, and like you could spend 100 hours with him and still never quite get a grasp on him. Glance at the two characters quickly, and they looked like twins. But focus on them for more than 10 seconds, and they looked like they’re from different planets. It’s a neat trick, and one that only the most skilled actors can pull off. At any rate …)

Bale has a new movie coming out this week. It’s called Ford v Ferrari. And, Bale being one of the most talented working actors on the planet, I am very excited for it. So much so, in fact, that I spent the past several days rewatching every movie that Bale played a major role in over the past two or so decades—even Terminator Salvation, which is how you know I took this seriously. As such, below are some charts. They’re all about Bale, about some aspect of his movie existence, be it a movie-specific thing or a general career thing. Some of the charts have accompanying text underneath them. Others do not. That’s what this article is.

A good bit of trivia is: Every time Christian Bale has appeared in a movie with Amy Adams, he has received an Academy Award nomination. He received a Best Supporting Actor nomination when they were in The Fighter together in 2010 (he won it that year). He received a Best Actor nomination when they were in American Hustle together in 2013 (he lost to Matthew McConaughey, who was magnificent in Dallas Buyers Club). And he received a Best Actor nomination when they were in Vice together in 2018 (he lost to Rami Malek, who played Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, but if he was going to lose to anybody he should’ve lost to Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine in A Star Is Born). The only time Bale has received an Academy Award nomination for a movie that Adams wasn’t in was when he received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for 2015’s The Big Short, but Steve Carell was in that, and Steve Carell and Amy Adams were in an episode of The Office together, so I figure Carell probably had just enough of Amy Adams’s energy on him to activate Bale’s senses.

Three things here:

  1. Do you remember Edge of Tomorrow? It came out in 2014. It was a time-loop movie where Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt had to fight aliens (OR SOMETHING). I remember when it came out, because there were a great number of people (me included) who were like, “Eh, Tom Cruise battles aliens in a Groundhog Day movie? No thanks.” But then we all sat down and watched it and were like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is actually super fucking cool.” Reign of Fire is like that, except in reverse. It sounded like it was going to be so much fun (Matthew McConaughey fights a dragon! Gerard Butler fights a dragon! Christian Bale fights a dragon AND KILLS A DRAGON!). But mostly it ended up being a stinker.
  2. I know that we don’t have verifiable proof that Christian Bale’s Batman has any legitimate dragon-fighting skills, but I would like to assume that he does. I mean, if we can all squint our eyes and pretend that Ben Affleck’s Batman can beat up Superman, I think we can also go ahead and add “Dragon Fighter” to Bale’s Batman.
  3. The same year that Bale starred in Reign of Fire, he also starred in Equilibrium, a movie set in a future when emotions have been outlawed and everybody owns many guns and one motorcycle helmet. It’s not technically a good movie, but it’s still a hoot to watch. I recommend it. (As good as Christian Bale is at killing in Equilibrium—he puts 118 people in the dirt!—I don’t figure he’d be much of a match for the alpha dragon in Reign of Fire.)

There’s a survival TV show I enjoy called Naked and Afraid. It airs on the Discovery Channel. On each episode, a man and a woman will be taken out to some remote location in some treacherous part of the world, then that man and that woman will get all the way naked, and then that man and that woman will try to survive in the wilderness for three weeks. And listen, there are a big number of things that are sucky about that set of circumstances, but the main one for me is that you have to be outside with no shoes on. Few things in this world are more unnerving for me than the prospect of getting something sharp embedded in one (OR BOTH!) of my feet. It is a truly, truly uncomfortable thought. And this will sound like a joke but I promise that it is not: My bare feet have not touched the ground in several years. I won’t even walk around my house barefoot.

Anyway, in Rescue Dawn, a movie where Christian Bale plays a pilot whose plane gets shot down and he becomes a prisoner of war for several months, many terrible things happen to Bale, none of which are more horrifying to watch than seeing him have his shoes taken away by the Viet Cong.

Thirteen things here:

  1. Not listed is Bale’s war veteran turned would-be law-enforcement agent Jim Davis from Harsh Times. I enjoy the movie, but mostly only because it’s neat to watch Bale speak Spanish and take on a bunch of Mexican American affectations.
  2. Bale’s performance in Out of the Furnace landing on here and his performance in Rescue Dawn not landing on here might be a controversial pick, but it feels like the right way to go. I’m just very much a fan of when Bale turns everything inward and lets all of his emotions bake in his chest like pieces of coal in … as it were … a furnace. It’s why I enjoy him so much in 3:10 to Yuma. Because it’s one thing to put on a show when you’re allowed the theatrics of a massive body transformation or the theatrics inherent to playing someone who’s being held captive during a war. It’s another thing entirely when all that’s called for you to do in a script is scowl and growl and emote from your eyeballs and only your eyeballs.
  3. Back around my first or second year of coaching middle school basketball, there was a kid on our team who was several levels better than everyone else. He was the kind of player who, as soon as the other team saw him during the pregame layup lines, would start to drain all of the confidence they had in their bodies out of their noses and ears and buttholes. We had a game one time where our super player tapped the opening-game jump ball out to one of his teammates, who then immediately passed it back to him. The super player caught the pass, took two or three or dribbles toward the rim, and then raised up and dunked it. And again: This was middle school. He was 13, maybe 14 years old, playing against other 13-, maybe 14-year-olds. As soon as the dunk happened, the other team was like, “Well, fuck this shit. We’re going home.” It took four seconds for our player to win that particular game. I figure that other team felt the same way that Mark Wahlberg must’ve felt when Christian Bale showed up on the set on The Fighter and then delivered one of the all-time great movie opening monologues. What a brilliant, brilliant show Bale put on there.
  4. It feels weird to describe Bale’s performance in American Psycho as “fun,” but that’s what it feels like to me when I watch him there. Every choice he makes is just so interesting. My very favorite part of the movie is when Bateman is being questioned by Willem Dafoe’s character (Detective Kimball) for the first time following the disappearance of Paul Allen, whom Bateman has murdered. There’s a bit of tension between the two of them, and Bateman is trying to do his best not to say anything that will hit Kimball’s ears weird. It’s a very high-stakes situation. But then, during the questioning, Kimball asks Bateman where he lives. Bateman gives him his address, and Kimball, familiar with New York real estate, compliments him on it. All of Bateman’s defenses drop down immediately so he can fully receive the compliment. And then—and this happens very quickly, but it definitely happens—you see Bateman’s armor go right back up. The whole interplay lasts two or three seconds, but it’s perfect. You can watch it on YouTube right here. When Bateman’s scowl snaps back into place it’s like you can hear the bank vault door on his brain slamming shut.
  5. (BTW, Dafoe also has a big part in Out of the Furnace. I love him a ton. He’s one of those actors who only ever elevates a scene. I have never one single time watched him in something and thought, “Man, this would be better if he wasn’t here.)
  6. (BTW BTW, I mentioned earlier that Amy Adams has been in three separate movies with Bale. Outside of the Batman universe, there’s only one other actor who’s been in three movies with Bale. It’s Shea Whigham, a fantastic character actor who specializes in playing people who are supposed to always feel 25 percent slimy.)
  7. (BTW BTW BTW, did you know that Bale has been in two movies where he killed a kid with a car? It happens in The Machinist and it happens in Out of the Furnace.)
  8. Bale’s character(s) in The Prestige is (are) listed in the trait matrix as being more awkward than cool. That’s because he (they) is (are) a magician(s). Magicians are cool when they’re butted up against other magicians in a years-long competition of skill, but they’re nerdy in every other kind of setting.
  9. I laugh every single time during The Big Short when Bale’s Michael Burry is explaining how social interactions are hard for him, and then it cuts to him complimenting a guy for his haircut and then asking him whether he did it himself.
  10. I just really like Christian Bale a lot.
  11. That’s the whole point of all of this.
  12. I’m excited for Ford v Ferrari.
  13. That’s the other point of all of this.