The way to understand Big Eyes is not as a movie about art nor as a Tim Burton film, though it’s both of those things. No, Big Eyes is best understood as a movie about domestic abuse, and as such it’s actually more powerful because there’s only minimal violence in it.
That’s in keeping with the real-life story of Margaret and Walter Keane on which the movie’s based. They were painters who met in 1953 in San Francisco. Having fled a violent first marriage, Margaret specialized in kitschy portraits of children with gigantic, sad eyes. Partly to defuse a threat from Margaret’s ex-husband to take away custody of their daughter, Walter married her and took to selling the paintings. He did this brilliantly, but he claimed credit for creating the art himself, telling his wife that customers and critics would take the art more seriously if they thought it was painted by a man.
This is a Burton film without any supernatural elements, his first since 1994’s Ed Wood. He reunites with the screenwriters of that movie, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. They take some liberties with the story, most notably with the timeframe — it took more than 20 years for Margaret to definitively prove herself the artworks’ creator in federal court rather than the matter of months that it takes in the movie.
This is excusable because the filmmakers do such a good job of rendering the dysfunctional dynamic between the Keanes. Walter (Christoph Waltz) initially starts off building up Margaret’s battered self-esteem. Then, like a classic abuser, he cuts off Margaret (Amy Adams) from her friends, ostensibly so that she can have more time to paint, and shuts her up in an attic studio in their mansion well away from the city. He never hits her, because he doesn’t have to in order to brutalize her. Instead, he uses his skills at lying and manipulation to convince her that his deception is for her benefit and that she and her daughter (played by Delaney Raye as a young girl and Madeleine Arthur as an older one) will be living on the street if she ever spills their secret. As the Keane paintings bring in more and more money and press coverage, Walter’s ego and drinking balloon out of control.
We know from Quentin Tarantino’s films that Waltz can play charming, theatrical, and cunning characters, but seeing him put those skills to work in a romantic context as a domineering husband is a fresh experience. Good as he is, though, the movie wouldn’t work without Adams. Working with a Southern lilt (Margaret Keane grew up in Tennessee), Adams layers her growing terror with a sense of self-disgust at letting herself be used in this way. With violence against women taking particular prominence in the last few months, this movie illustrates how a woman can be abused purely through emotional violence. That’s what makes Big Eyes worth looking into.
Starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Rated PG-13.