BIG EYES (2014)
reviewed by Jessica Elliott
"So, who is the artist?"
- a woman inquiring about the Big Eyes artist.
And with these five words, Big Eyes reveals itself as a movie about two different artists: one that dabbles in acrylics while the other dabbles in deception. Big Eyes is layered in its story-telling, beginning with hopefulness, trust, deception, abuse, horror and relief. Amy Adams (as Margaret Keane) and Christoph Waltz (as Walter Keane) handle the delivery of these complex emotions like the professionals they are with a cherry on top. The strength of Margaret Keane is one of beauty, especially when that strength is finally acknowledged and rewarded. The feminist layer to this movie, a product of the time period, was an unexpected but pleasant surprise to the film’s depth. The duration of the movie is spent realizing we’re watching Margaret and her artistic talent only to realize that Walter is just as artistic, albeit in a very different way. 

Sad, Unbelievable, Manipulative, Beautiful, Inspiring, Deception, Feminism

Beautiful acting by Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams
Color palette
Layered emotions
Authentic film production value

Odd tonal change throughout movie
Uneven movie pace
Felt lengthy at times
Lack of Tim Burton touches

I remember Big Eyes paintings when I was a child. After watching the film, I realize now they were the mass-produced versions of the originals as posters, postcards, t-shirts, etc. However, before we delve in, can we please discuss how Amy Adams never ages? She’s got the same anti-aging genes as Pharrell and Paul Rudd. Am I right? She’s 40-years-old and looks fucking amazing! She radiates innocence and dangerous flirtation at the same time. The complexity of achieving this baffles me. Okay. Just had to get that off my chest. Let’s move on.

Big Eyes follows the story of Margaret Keane and her paintings of children with eyes exaggerated in size. She explains that for a short while as a young child, she was deaf and relied on the facial expressions and eyes of those she was talking with to completely understand them. Eyes are important to her and thus, she enlarges them in all her paintings. Enter Walter. He’s an artist, charming as hell, and wants to take care of Margaret. Soon after they meet, they become husband and wife. Walter, realizing Margaret has a genuine talent in painting, offers to sell her paintings and are a success very quickly, making large sums of money. The caveat, however, is that Margaret must relinquish public ownership of the artwork because “nobody wants to buy lady art,” according to Walter. Giving in to her husband, she allows him to take credit for her paintings for over a decade.

Big Eyes’ opening scene screams Tim Burton – the cookie cutter houses in the perfectly structured neighborhood against the pastel blue sky and crisp neon greenery. But something not so perfect was going on: Margaret is leaving her husband and taking her daughter. This act shows the viewers Margaret’s strength and responsibility – characteristics she struggles to remain true to throughout the film. Her naiveté falls prey to traits of women of her generation – one that depends on a man’s strength and provisions and believes it is necessary to have in order to be a respectable woman, especially one with a young child.

Big Eyes is peppered with beautiful artwork but its all razzle dazzle for the con happening right in front of your eyes – no pun intended. The biggest proponent of said conning is Christoph Waltz’s character, Walter Keane. The minute he is introduced on-screen, the corners of my mouth turned up and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I got got… I got got baaaad. He’s smiling that charming smile of his, enunciating his words in ways no normal person would, and over complimenting you but you don’t care. Walter Keane is a snake charmer and its turned up to a fucking 11. Margaret, desperate for someone who wants her and her child, finds what she thinks is a soul mate in a fellow “artist,” Walter. She’s fallen into the deception trap Walter has laid out for her by showering her with the right combination of vulnerability, sensitivity and protector. As she discovers the first lie – that he is taking credit for paintings she produced - Margaret becomes part of the lie by adding to it. She can't fight against Walter because he plays on her vulnerability, making her believe this is the only way they can sell the artwork because “nobody wants to buy lady art.” Margaret believes him, albeit, never fully. Walter is cunning and Margaret so badly wanted to be wanted so she continues on in this charade. This deception continues for over a decade, with Walter seemingly unable to tell apart fact from fiction.

This ruse is created not only for art buyers but for Margaret’s daughter, Jane, as well. This was probably the most heartbreaking part of the movie for me. From the opening scenes of the movie, Margaret and Jane are shown as a very strong family of two. Once Walter enters the picture, the dynamic between mother and daughter begins to fade and so does Jane’s role in the movie, entering back into the film only to further the story as needed, a misstep, in my opinion. As Margaret’s daughter, Jane could have brought another level of insight or dimension to the movie, sharing her point of view. Along with hiding her true identity as the Big Eyes painter, Margaret deceives her daughter in order to sell the story for outsiders. This chips away at Margaret and ultimately adds to the deterioration of their relationship.

The wonderful tactic of this movie is the viewer sharing the same eyes (another pun?! I’m on a roll) as Margaret. We are being deceived by Walter just as she is. With each reveal of who Walter really is, my heart skipped a beat. Each uncovered deception learned about Walter is like a punch in the gut because you're reminded you're not just watching a movie - but the story of someone's true life.

The pace of the movie from the beginning to about the halfway mark was presented really well: compelling, disturbing, sad, but fascinating. After that point there are questionable scenes put into the film that stick out like a sore thumb. Two of these moments are 1) Walter violently confronting a critic about his/Margaret’s work and 2) Walter drunkenly threatening Margaret and by starting a fire in their home. I mention these two scenes because of how awkwardly they stood out among a pretty straightforward film. The first of these two scenes I’ve mentioned is Walter confronting critic John Canaday (Terence Stamp), who was not a fan of the Big Eyes painting style, to put it lightly. After a verbally violent confrontation, Walter decides to display his anger physically and grabs a fork with every intention of stabbing Canady. Canady has got fast hands because he stops the fork about an inch away from his eye and the camera pauses on a close-up of this for a half-second longer than needed. When this scene happened, I laughed because the editing, pacing and execution of the scene, was so odd and unexpected. It felt like something that should belong in a superhero movie.

The second scene was with Margaret, Jane and Walter in their home. It felt like a domestic violence scene from a Lifetime movie. At this point, Jane is older and has discovered the truth about her mother as the painter of Big Eyes. Walter is yelling at himself, at no one, and then at Margaret and Jane. As the screams become more and more ferocious, Margaret and Jane run into the studio room, locking themselves in. Walter decides to light matches and push them thru the keyhole of the door, all the while giggling and finding amusement in his actions. This scene stood out because of the dangerous and violent tone his psychopathic persona was going. It just didn’t quite match the rest of the movie. Perhaps this is a testament to Waltz’s acting and how scary his irrationality had become.
I wish there were more obvious Tim Burton touches in the movie. I was hoping for something a bit more whimsical like Edward Scissorhands or Big Fish. But when the movie is based on a real story and person, I guess that’s the goal – to tell their story, not add Burton-esque touches for the sake of adding them. He includes enough: the bright pastel color schemes in many of the scenes and even more overt, the scenes showing how Margaret was haunted by her paintings. While shopping in the grocery store, the eyes of other shoppers was enlarged, matching the same of the Big Eyes paintings, burning a hole into Margaret’s conscious. These few moments remind you of Burton and are welcomed familiar traits. 

This scene is important and encompasses the movie perfectly. Walter, in all of his smiling charm, overshadows any questions Margaret has about how they’re approaching the selling of her artwork and ownership of it. Waltz’s acting is so perfectly done – as a viewer, you begin to believe his justifications for doing anything and how dare we question him! Equally brilliant is Adams. This actress, people, is extremely talented. She plays naïve, strong, intelligent and aloof at the drop of a hat. She’s captivating from the minute her face graces the screen. Watching Adams and Waltz together makes the happy feels in my body burst with enjoyment because they are on top of their acting game – each one restraining just enough when needed and allowing each other to shine when necessary. Wonderfully done.
Big Eyes is satisfyingly layered with deception, feminism, and beautiful artwork. The story is fascinating and incredibly sad. Giving up ownership of your artwork is essentially giving up a part of yourself and the fact that Margaret did this for 10 years is a difficult thing to comprehend. Burton’s direction is fine but does not warrant a trip to the theaters. The story is intriguing but the way it was shared was nothing out of the ordinary, especially for Burton. You can, however, tell he is a fan of Margaret Keane’s work because there is a sense of reverence and importance given to her character and thus, her work. She begins the film in a fragile state of mind transforming into courage and confidence by the end – truly inspiring. Her strength to fight for what was rightfully hers is empowering, claiming her role as the true artist.

2.5 out of 4



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