A 35-year anniversary. A 30-year anniversary. Three 20-year anniversaries. Two 15-year anniversaries. One 10-year anniversary. One 5-year anniversary. A new film in theaters, with another at least on the way this winter. Well played, Christian Bale. Well played.
It’s a lucky thing that Bale, everyone’s favorite Welsh Englishman, can claim this many birthday celebrations and red carpets in a single calendar year. Grant that the majority of the former–Newsies, 3:10 to Yuma, I’m Not There, Equilibrium, Empire of the Sun, and Hostiles–came out in months besides July, and so Bale gets to spread out his cake intake over the course of the whole year. But also grant that The Dark Knight Rises and Reign of Fire, two July blockbusters released a decade apart, have anniversaries within just over a week of one another; also be mindful that Bale’s latest movie, Thor: Love and Thunder, dropped mere days ago. He’s a man rich in close-proximity acting credits.
What’s important about each of these films, and the July releases in particular, is how cleanly they demonstrate the curve of Bale’s career and the range of his choice in roles: A pair of comic book films plus a truly bonkers post-apocalypse blend of sci-fi, fantasy, and Matthew McConaughey leaping to his death via dragon’s maw. When respectable movie establishments think of Christian Bale, they typically think of him in terms of prestige–acting nominations in The Fighter, American Hustle, The Big Short, and Vice, which, oddly enough, are directed in turn by David O. Russell (the first two) and Adam McKay (the second two). His presence in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies may be memorable in popular culture’s macrocosm, but his status as an Academy Award-level actor is what his legacy will likely be cemented on.
This is a shame. Bale takes his craft seriously, which applies both to the roles he takes and the way he approaches them. Projects like the McKay and Russell movies practically scream their sobriety at their audiences; they are high-gravity productions that demand respect rather than permit enjoyment. Bale put on 40 pounds to portray Dick Cheney in Vice, for instance, going in the opposite direction as Dicky Eklund in The Fighter, which he lost 63 pounds for in keeping with Eklund’s drug addiction. So it goes. He pulled off a similarly unhealthy feat in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist, and then bulked up to carry out his Batman duties a year later. Consider this yo-yoing a display of “seriousness” in a conventionally pretentious spirit.
But by a stroke of fate, it’s the anniversary movies that better reflect who Bale is as an actor. (Unsurprisingly, these pictures didn’t receive as much awards attention as either the Russell or McKay films.) Here is a performer of great skill who doesn’t shy from an outlandish premise; he’s as game for an Equilibrium, playing an emotionless future cop tasked with finding and arresting rogue citizens guilty of having feelings, as he is for I’m Not There, starring as Jack Rollins, a personification of Bob Dylan during his protest singer-songwriter era. Like the idea of a Brit popping up in a Western? Go with 3:10 to Yuma if you’re more inclined toward gunfighting, and Hostiles if you prefer your frontier myth-making ponderous. Musical historical fiction? Heartbreaking World War II sagas? Bale can do it all. He’s done it all.
Bale’s versatility and his willingness to step into any role no matter how big, small, or silly makes him a compelling presence. More than that, it makes his presence a necessity for each of these anniversary films, the ones with the wildest material in particular. Take Equilibrium: Set in a far-flung future where an illiberal authoritarian regime has yoked citizens to psychoactives and where law is enforced by Tetragrammaton clerics, ruthless stormtroopers trained in “gun kata”–think kung fu, but make it ballistic. Bale plays John Preston, a decorated cleric, who falls in with “sense offenders,” people who have rejected their government and continue to feel, after missing a round of his daily mood stabilizer. Instead of kicking ass for the state, he kicks ass for the people.
The concept is flimsy–if everyone in your nation had their emotions suppressed, they’d lose qualities like ambition and drive, too–and gun kata is similarly ridiculous on paper. Bale doesn’t care. Bullet dodging supercop in an Orwellian nightmare? “Sure,” his acting seems to say. “Whatever. Shut up. Let me stand there and look cool.” Preston is a dour, humorless man in line with Equilibrium’s basic conceit, and Bale gives him a backbone that’s essential to both fulfill the character brief and offset the film’s inherent absurdity.
He heads in the opposite direction in Reign of Fire, where dragons and mankind have left the world an ash heap after warring with one another. (Turns out dragons killed off the dinosaurs, not a boring asteroid. Who knew?) Here, Bale leads a community of survivors in Northern England, short on food and more so on hope; he’s a man haunted by ghosts of his past and stymied by survivor’s guilt, a sensitive soul running out of options to save his people. Unlike in Equilibrium, Bale expresses himself. But much like in Equilibrium, he brings gravitas to the production that mostly blunts its constitutional and unabashed B-movie ambitions. Where McConaughey, his co-star, goes big, broad, and blustering in his performance as a dick-swinging American Irregular, Bale digs deep to give Reign of Fire a heart.
What’s semi-discombobulating about his appearance in Reign of Fire is how far back he reaches in his filmography for the qualities needed to bring the performance together. Consider his first major role playing Jamie Graham in Empire of the Sun, a wealthy boy living in Shanghai made a POW in a Japanese internment camp in WWII; also consider Newsies, made a mere 5 years later, where his character finds romance during the New York City Newsboys’ Strike of 1899. It isn’t jejunity that Bale removes from these movies for Reign of Fire, exactly, but pure innocence; peace is the finest ideal, but to achieve it, one occasionally has to explode a dragon or two.
This simpatico detail is surprisingly missing from much of Bale’s work elsewhere, save for how the Russell and McKay movies share awards season as their connective tissue. (It’s worth noting that American Psycho also draws inspiration from Bale’s salad days, because what is Patrick Bateman’s charming social persona built on but innocence?) Even The Dark Knight Rises, the worst blockbuster Nolan has made to date, lets Bale rotate between projecting a guilelessness unbecoming of the world’s greatest detective, keeping a stiff upper lip, and breaking men’s bones. Bale’s Batman is a complete figure. This strikes as odd in contrast with the very real human beings he plays in his prestige projects, where his acting is frequently subsumed by either dangerous weight swings or grotesque prosthetics work.
What is proven by Vice next to the many Bale movies we get to commemorate in 2022 is this: The harder a movie tries to remind the audience that he is an actor, the less he’s allowed to genuinely act. The opposite is true, too: Movies that reject the same pretense tend to get the best performances out of him. Who needs to watch Bale play Dick Cheney when he’s right there in Reign of Fire and Equilibrium giving two of the most formative performances of his career in movies that would be just fine without them, but are made indispensable because of them?