Christian Bale – His Five Best, Most Under-Appreciated Films
Article by Charlie Dunlap
John Connor….Bruce Wayne…..Every film lover worth his or her own salt is aware of the iconic characters which have made Christian Bale a household celebrity name, but what about the other past roles that have gotten him to where he is today? According to IMDB, Bale has appeared in roughly 45 roles (including a few television stints) since 1987′s powerful EMPIRE OF THE SUN, in which he filled the shoes of the unrecognizably young, Jamie Graham. With Bale once again splashing across the headlines – most recently regarding his visits to the Aurora hospitals housing victims of the recent Colorado theater shootings, this writer has decided that it’s the perfect time to present five of Bale’s best, more obscure and under-appreciated films, all presented in ascending chronological order:
1) VELVET GOLDMINE – 1998
Still a relative unknown at this time, Bale tackles the role of British newspaper reporter, Arthur Stewart, tasked to investigate the death of 1970’s rock star, Brian Slade (played by Ewan McGregor). It’s only a testament to Todd Haynes’ dazzling and vibrant take on the European glam rock scene, that Bale doesn’t quite make as much of an impression as primary co-stars Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers…Unfolding like a historical doc heavily dosed up on the very drugs that animate its characters’ lives, Velvet Goldmine weaves a poetic and musical narrative that packs a surprising amount of substance within its imaginatively visual set-pieces. Backed by a solid glam rock music score, Haynes’ somehow accomplishes the rare feat of producing an instant cult-classic soaked in dream-like imagery that both beautifies and clarifies its musically drug-soaked culture.
2) THE MACHINIST – 2004
It’s a shame that Bale’s dramatically self-sacrificial (and near suicidal) loss of weight for his role in this film has largely overshadowed one of the best dark psychological dramas of all time. It’s difficult to comprehend how its budding auteur, Brad Anderson, even pulled it off. Coming across like some surreal b*****d offspring of David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock, The Machinist’s creepily elusive and confounding narrative requires multiple viewings to properly appreciate its dense machinations, manifesting as one of those rare films that yield further insight even beyond a second viewing. Throughout its ambitious efforts to slowly and methodically reveal the disturbing events that Bale’s insomnia-wracked industrial worker, Trevor Reznick, seems unable to consciously process, Anderson’s film displays a gracefully unfurling and nightmarish narrative that’s normally only reserved for mid-to-late directorial career masterpieces. With intensely creepy, pitch-perfect atmosphere, Anderson’s film simultaneously forces the viewer to descend into madness with Reznick, himself, while sharing in his struggle to attain the sense of clarity and comfort only increasingly distorted by his lack of sleep. Perhaps most miraculously, it all holds together perfectly, yet only if you abandon yourself to the haunted and dream-like logic that imprisons both Reznick, the film’s internal narrative, and any viewers brave enough to tackle this brilliant film.
3) SHAFT – 2007:
Although John Singleton’s reimagining of that iconic blaxsploitation character, Shaft, doesn’t carry the same artistic genius as the last two films in this list, it’s a decidedly necessary addition in being highlighted by Bale’s arguably best villainous role. Although it’s hard to beat Bale violently ripping people to shreds while humming Huey Lewis tunes in 2007’s American Psycho, Bale one-ups himself in the very same year with Shaft’s Walter Wade Jr., creating a more realistic and even more surprisingly dislikeable scumbag in the process. While American Psycho takes an almost satirical look at Bale’s serial killer, no single moment in that film comes close to making you hate his character as much as when Walter thoughtlessly bashes in a young man’s head outside of a night club, only to joke that the…“nigga needs riddlin,” as the police lead him away from the man’s convulsing body, helplessly clinging to a life so carelessly stripped away. Perfectly embodying the primary purpose of any movie’s villain, Bale virtually steals the film from Samuel Jackson’s otherwise fun rendition of Shaft, while simultaneously creating a character that the viewer not simply wants – but needs – to see getting his ass whooped by Shaft.
4) 3:10 TO YUMA – 2007
One of the best westerns of the 21st century, 3:10 to Yuma features Bale playing the character of Dale Evans, a small-time rancher who bravely agrees to escort Russell Crowe’s outlaw character to a court in the titular town of Yuma. If it’s not enough to see two scenery-chomping actors competing against each other in their prime, viewers also get saddled with an excellently crafted story to boot. The steadily building, dramatic nuances of the aforementioned characters only deepen a series of fast-paced, high-suspense set pieces that make its two-plus hour run time fly past.
5) THE FLOWERS OF WAR – 2011
At this point in Bale’s career, it’s hard to believe that one of his films can just breeze over an audience’s heads without much fanfare, and all the more of a shame that Yimou Zhang’s The Flowers of War, seemed to do just that. In Zhang’s elegantly disturbing and emotionally impactful film, Bale plays a westerner who seeks refuge at a Chinese cathedral with a group of schoolgirls and prostitutes during the historical 1937-38 “Rape of Nanking.” As John Miller, Bale is given a meaty character arc to play with – one in which we see him grow from a booze-happy survivor caught in the wrong place at a wrong time, to a genuinely caring savior whom progressively becomes more invested in protecting the aforementioned group to the best of his severely hampered abilities. Both this general genre and particular storyline would seem vulnerable to the black-and-white moralizing and saccharine sentimentality that tends to plague such films, but Zhang manages to largely avoid these pitfalls in what constitutes a fine tightrope act that nicely balances the true interpersonal horrors and burdens of war with Bale’s realistically flawed, yet ultimately redeeming actions. Underneath it all, Zhang even manages to infuse the narrative with a powerfully affective meditation on identity and sacrifice. To talk more about the plot would ruin a surprisingly original film, as The Flowers of War is one of those rare gems that transcends it’s own genre’s trappings. Be forewarned though: its title retrospectively serves as an ingeniously sly warning at the amount of heartbreaking – if ultimately cathartic – moments the viewer will have to share with John Miller.
Charlie Dunlap is a passionate, life-long writer and student of film, who recently returned to Denver, CO after obtaining his masters degree in communication at Saint Louis University. This article was originally posted at examiner.com