Christian Bale's Best Movies
In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Out of the Furnace star.
He's been Batman, Bateman, and battled Terminators -- and this weekend, Christian Bale battles Woody Harrelson for the fate of Casey Affleck in Out of the Furnace, the latest eminently well-cast drama from Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper. In honor of Bale's latest cinematic excursion, we decided to take this opportunity to pause for a fond look back at some of the brighter critical highlights from an acclaimed career that's still collecting them at an impressive pace. It's time for Total Recall!
10. The Machinist
Critics almost always fawn over actors who alter their bodies for a role, to the point where it's even become sort of a joke for some film fans. There's nothing funny, however, about the lengths Christian Bale went to for 2004's The Machinist: wanting to adopt the physical appearance of a man who hadn't been able to sleep for a year, he subsisted on a diet of coffee, apples, and tuna fish for more than four months, eventually dropping over 60 pounds before being ordered to stop losing weight. The work of a dedicated artist, to be sure -- and it worked, making Bale something of a living special effect in Brad Anderson's dark psychological thriller. Sadly, it also had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing pretty much everything else in the film; even those who haven't seen The Machinist know it's "the one where Christian Bale lost all that weight." Fortunately, unlike its star, the movie has plenty of meat on its bones; in the words of the Arizona Republic's Bill Muller, "though Bale deserves all the credit that can be heaped at his feet... there is far more to this sinister psychological thriller than just exhibiting [his] emaciated form."
Bob Dylan's music has inspired a great many things over the last five decades and change, but it seems a safe bet that very few of those things have been as deliberately unusual as Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, a sort of strange hybrid between Short Cuts-style vignette storytelling and musical biopic that loosely follows the framework of Dylan's life story using six actors -- including Bale, Cate Blanchett, and Heath Ledger -- to embody the different sides of its subject's personality. (Bale actually covers two "Dylans," appearing as both a young folksinger named Jack Rollins and an evangelist preacher named Pastor John.) Though some critics found I'm Not There's non-linear style more provoking than provocative -- Peter Howell of the Toronto Star called it "a rolling shambles" -- response was largely positive; thanks to writers like Roger Ebert, who argued that "what Haynes does is take away the reassuring segues that argue everything flows and makes sense, and to show what's really chaos under the skin of the film," it earned a spot on many year-end best-of lists.
For a lot of actors, starting a career means taking a certain number of thankless roles in less, shall we say, prestigious productions -- think Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey in The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Christian Bale, however, got his first big break from none other than Steven Spielberg, who put him in the lead for 1987's Empire of the Sun after receiving a recommendation from Bale's former co-star (and Spielberg's then-wife), Amy Irving. Playing a thinly fictionalized version of author and former POW J.G. Ballard, the teenaged Bale had to take his character from the pampered (and frankly obnoxious) youth in the first act to the hollowed-out husk who staggers through the final scenes. It was a task that would have been beyond the grasp of many a more seasoned actor, but Bale came through with flying colors, earning a specially created award from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures to go with the many positive reviews from critics like Cole Smithey, who remarked, "Christian Bale's debut is a doozy."
Bale's early films may not have been big hits, but they did cover a lot of bases, proving he could carry himself in everything from action epics and costume dramas to dark, low-budget thrillers -- which is precisely what convinced Christopher Nolan that Bale was the right man to capture all the many facets of Bruce Wayne when he agreed to direct the long-in-the-making Batman reboot. Bale's dedication to the role was immediately put to the test; after losing a dangerous amount of weight for The Machinist, he had to quickly reverse course -- and he did, hitting the gym to pack on over 100 pounds in just a few months. The end result was the first of the big-screen Batmen to not only act the part convincingly, but look it, too -- a good thing, since Nolan's vision for the character's origin story had plenty of dramatic depth to go with its fisticuffs. Though not all critics responded to Batman Begins' more realistic, less tongue-in-cheek approach (Rex Reed notably said it was "for morons"), most reviews were in line with the movie's remarkable $370 million worldwide gross; as Desson Thomson of the Washington Post put it, "here's how any great franchise should start: with care, precision and delicately wrought atmosphere."
6. 3:10 to Yuma
Elmore Leonard's 1953 short story took its second trip to the big screen with this James Mangold Western, which managed to revisit Delmer Daves' 1957 original -- and substitute Bale and Russell Crowe for Van Heflin and Glenn Ford -- without provoking many unfavorable comparisons. It didn't hurt, of course, that the source material provides a classic example of the good vs. evil showdown that fans of the genre have always loved; all any Yuma update needed was a pair of solid actors to hold it down, and Mangold chose his wisely. Audiences rewarded the new 3:10 to Yuma with a healthy $70 million worldwide gross -- and critics responded too, lauding Mangold's direction and Bale and Crowe's performances in equal measure. Writing for the Houston Chronicle, Bruce Westbrook called it "cathartic and intelligent" and "the best Western since Unforgiven," going on to add, "while a wildly eventful action-adventure and outlaw shoot-'em-up, it's also a vibrant story of heroism, villainy and hard-earned redemption."