“An actor should never be larger than the film he’s in,” Christian Bale told The Independent in 2008; considering that he was promoting Christopher Nolan’s massive, IMAX-sized, nearly three-hour The Dark Knight, he might have been hedging his bets. Few movie stars can match Bale when it comes to go-big-or-go-home mania, but what separates him from other actors who make their living going over the top—like, say, Nicolas Cage—is that he also succeeds in modest, unobtrusive roles. Although, since he was cast as Batman in the mid-2000s supporting parts have been in shorter supply for Bale.
If Bale’s three outings in the cowl represent the apex of his stardom, the turning point in his career was 2000’s American Psycho, which turns 20 years old this month and stands as one of the most sleekly designed star vehicles of the 21st century—a custom-tooled machine for the actor’s elastic skill set, weaponizing his leading-man handsomeness. Before American Psycho, Bale was just one English up-and-comer among many, mostly recognized for child-star turns in Empire of the Sun and the cult musical Newsies; after the film premiered at Sundance to predictable yet genuinely unsettling controversy, he was being acclaimed as a potentially great actor (in his review, Roger Ebert called his performance “heroic”).
Like Joaquin Phoenix—a generational peer with similarly mercurial talent—Bale developed a reputation for being professionally difficult, peaking in 2009 with his infamous, profanity-laced tantrum on the set of Terminator Salvation, audio of which went viral, painting an actor lauded for his vein-popping commitment to challenging parts as a man stranded on the wrong side of perfectionism. Whether or not you think that in Bale’s case (or anybody’s) the ends justify the means, his filmography features a uniquely low ratio of phoned-in performances. By examining 12 of his most impressive credits, we can get a sense of the true size of Bale’s talent.
Empire of the Sun
Bale’s debut in 1987 in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun—playing the childhood incarnation of novelist J.G. Ballard, on whose semi-autobiographical novel the film is based—is a child performance for the books. More than 4,000 young actors auditioned to play Jamie, a British student living in Shanghai whose life is upended after Pearl Harbor and the onset of Japanese occupation, and Bale got the part based largely on his resemblance to Ballard. While the film features epically scaled action sequences, including bombing raids that showcase the director’s fetish for spectacle, its dramatic and emotional impact hinges on its 12-year-old star’s ability to project pure innocence. Jamie’s misguided excitement at the airborne action in the midst of wartime violence and subsequent survivalist ordeal in a fallen city makes for one of Spielberg’s most complex character arcs, and Bale’s bright-eyed yet amazingly unaffected acting provides the necessary grounding and foundation for Empire of the Sun to shine.
In 1994, Bale walked so that Timothée Chalamet could run. At the risk of inflaming the pro-Timmy contingent, I’ll just say that Bale’s approach to playing Theodore “Laurie” Laurence—childhood pal and later-life combination love interest slash thorn in the side to the March sisters—was different and in some ways closer to Louisa May Alcott’s original literary conception of the character. Bale’s Laurie was less sullenly cool, à la Greta Gerwig’s version, than endearingly awkward. (His first encounter with Winona Ryder’s Jo is a master class in shoe-gazing cuteness.) With all due respect to the structural trickery of Little Women 2019, Gillian Armstrong’s more straightforward version remains a lovely, deceptively classical adaptation and Bale’s ability to fit self-effacingly within the ensemble still stands as some of his best work.
Velvet Goldmine/I’m Not There
Todd Haynes’s glam-rock homage Velvet Goldmine is modeled on nothing less than Citizen Kane, unfolding as an investigation into the life of an elusive, dangerously famous pop musician. But where Orson Welles’s classic made the reporter character a faceless cipher—an audience surrogate seen only in shadow—Haynes centers Bale’s journalist figure as an anguished, multifaceted protagonist. His Arthur Stuart isn’t simply a scribe assigned to deconstruct the myth of the Bowie-ish Brian Slade; he’s a superfan, and his admiration reflects a mixture of hero worship and personal identification as a closeted kid coaxed out of his shell by the star’s unabashed exuberance. It’s a delicate, recessive performance that cedes the floor to flashier costars (Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor) while holding Haynes’s elaborately structured postmodern house of cards together. A decade later, Bale would reunite with the filmmaker as one of the half-dozen Bob Dylan manques in his impressionistic biopic I’m Not There, essaying the singer’s born-again phase, soulfully melding sermon and song during an eerily credible rendition of “Pressing On.”
No Hollywood actor had a better year in 2000 than Bale, who inhabited a matched set of designer psycopaths in American Psycho and Shaft—the former a career-making tour-de-force, the latter a flamboyant extended cameo. The killing joke in Bret Easton Ellis’s gore-soaked comedy of Manhattan manners is that Patrick Bateman’s all-consuming homicidal insecurity doesn’t contradict his scrupulously sculpted, magazine-catalog handsomeness; it exists as an extension of his vanity. The best thing about Bale’s performance in Mary Harron’s adaptation is the way the actor manages to appear uncomfortable in all that ferociously ripped yet unblemished skin. Few mainstream American movies have fetishized their star’s handsomeness more aggressively than American Psycho, which frames Patrick as an object to be looked at, as slender and pristine as his penthouse apartment decor—a strategic rejoinder to the book’s vicious, leering misogyny. The reason it works is because Bale holds our gaze so completely: that notorious, censor-baiting, Phil Collins–scored threesome is so funny—and chilling—because he can’t take his eyes off of himself. Bale’s character in Shaft doesn’t amass a comparable body count, but the role’s equation of trust-fund-fueled entitlement and ugly, impulsive violence is similar; tossing off racist taunts in a fancy restaurant, he’s an utterly repugnant avatar of white privilege who’s grown only more recognizable—and chilling—in retrospect.
The New World
Terrence Malick’s methodology isn’t always kind to actors: The director’s insistence on flat, declamatory dialogue readings embedded within a glancing, almost-synaptic editing style can leave otherwise charismatic stars seeming stranded or even invisible (ask Adrien Brody sometime about being more or less edited out of The Thin Red Line). But Bale has thrived in Malick’s movies, especially in his effectively self-effacing part in The New World as the third and sturdiest corner in a love triangle tinged by national mythology. At its core, the film is a capital-R Romance between Colin Farrell’s moody Jamestown colonist John Smith and Q’orianka Kilcher’s technically unnamed yet instantly recognizable Pocahontas—a coupling so iconic that Disney animated it—but there’s real, quiet, surging emotion in the way that Kilcher’s character grows gradually infatuated with a second John, Bale’s gentle settler John Rolfe. His mild, supportive courtship after Smith’s departure back to England at the movie’s midpoint deepens into a genuine two-way devotion. As a man who suspects he’s playing second fiddle to his partner’s true love, Bale accesses a solid, reliable decency that works in counterpoint to the film’s outbursts of wild, passionate exhilaration.
Given his fantical dedication to his craft, Bale was perfectly cast in The Prestige as the more process-oriented of the two fatally competitive magicians in Christopher Nolan’s trickiest and best movie; the contrast between his ornery, diligently practiced sleight-of-hand specialist Alfred Borden and Hugh Jackman’s milquetoast showman Robert Angier—who favours a flashier, more contraption-based form of illusionism—is what gives the film its dramatic and philosophical tension. Where in Batman Begins, Bale lazily recycled aspects of his American Psycho performance—and ended up getting acted off the screen in the sequels by pumped-up costars like Heath Ledger and Tom Hardy, who took his initial silly-voice-means-intensity shtick and ran with it—in The Prestige, Bale stepped up to Nolan’s challenge. Borden’s tense, bristling persona is steeped in palpable class tension and resentment, while the character’s sometimes erratic behavior, tied to Nolan’s biggest and best twist, represents some of Bale’s smartest, most carefully (im)balanced acting—The Prestige simply wouldn’t function with it.
Bale’s reputation as a kind of high-velocity thespian stuntman was consolidated by his much-publicized weight loss for Brad Anderson’s 2004 thriller The Machinist, for which he whittled himself down to a whippet-like 120 pounds. The result was startling, but weirdly wasted in a disappointing psychological horror story; for a better example of Bale’s transformative approach to his craft, check out 2006’s Rescue Dawn, about the German American pilot Dieter Dengler who wasted away to nothing in a Laotian prison camp during the Vietnam War before somehow escaping. Essentially remaking his own fine documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly as an action film, Werner Herzog smartly tapped Bale for his body-and-soul acting style while tapping a rare vein of goofy charm; viewed side-by-side with the real Dengler—a genuine eccentric who seems to have been engineered in a lab specializing in obsessively indomitable Herzogian protagonists—he’s completely convincing even as his work transcends impersonation.
Bale won a series of awards for indulging David O. Russell’s belief in indulging his actors; Russell didn’t seem to direct as much as unleash Mark Wahlberg’s wasted, wastrel meth-head half-brother in The Fighter, a wobbly presence in an otherwise potentially conventional underdog-boxer movie. (The only thing to do with a scene like the one where Bale’s chronically fucked-up Dicky Eklund duets with his doting, broken mom, played by Melissa Leo, on a sad Bee Gees ballad is give both actors Oscars.) He’s even wilder at times in American Hustle, although the film’s themes of performativity and masquerade arguably justify the excess: In the opening sequence, we see Bale’s slyly self-styled con man Irving Rosenfeld applying a careful patina of schlubbiness (including a Farrelly brothers–grade combover) in advance of a big meeting. Whether or not Russell’s flashy, polyester-textured salute to all-American grift (and scratchy, tactile Hollywood cinema of the 1970s) strikes you as ingenious or irritating is a matter of taste, but there’s no denying Bale’s pushy, hectoring life force.
The Big Short
“He’s as weird as [Christian’s] performance,” said Adam McKay of Michael Burry, the real-world doctor turned hedge fund guru who emerges as the sort-of hero of The Big Short: a socially awkward, statistically proficient Chicken Little who recognizes circa 2005 that the sky is falling and pivots toward a form of crisis profiteering that’s admirable insofar as its casualties are the deep-pocketed and deeply arrogant. (In recent weeks, Burry has tweeted in favor of restarting the U.S. economy ASAP.) Tonally, McKay’s comedy is all over the place, mixing pure docudrama with SNL-esque sketch comedy and Oliver Stone–style agitprop, with Bale’s focused mania serving as a sort of anchor. With his slovenly personal style and glass eye, Burry makes for an unlikely visionary even as the movie keeps trying to align with his point of view. Bale was showier (and heavier) acting for McKay as Dick Cheney in Vice, and while the eerie accuracy of his impersonation there shouldn’t be discounted, Burry is a more spontaneous and surprising seriocomic creation.
Ford v Ferrari
There’s nothing subtle about James Mangold’s Oscar-nominated Ford v Ferrari, which plays at times as a parody of the historical-drama genre—like Walk Hard with race cars. In a movie where everybody from the director on down has embraced the more-is-more mandate, Bale’s scenery-devouring work as the legendary British driver Ken Miles is par for the course. But amid all that technically proficient eye-twinkling and mean-mugging, a real, persuasively human figure emerges—an automotive savant and daredevil whose apparent death drive isn’t a sign of arrogance but a humble, unfussy conviction in his own abilities. Recruited to drive for the American assembly-line-titan Ford team by Matt Damon’s similarly alpha-male ex-wheelman Carroll Shelby, Ken bristles against authority while ultimately learning (it’s that kind of movie) the value of teamwork, and Bale plays his climactic self-sacrificing gesture beautifully—as a fulfilling moral victory earned paradoxically by following the path of least resistance. This is a big, skilled, ingratiating movie star performance, and the pleasure it elicits—in the actor and the audience—is very real.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.