Big Eyes

Big Eyes: Seeing Through the Shadows


I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Big Eyes as much as I did. Being that it was a Tim Burton film, I assumed the topic/story would not be taken seriously enough, but again to my surprise it was not very Tim Burtonesc.

The film opens with Margaret Keane, played by a wonderful Amy Adams leaving a pastel colored world with neat little houses and a picture perfect blue sky. It’s a place viewers may not want to leave just yet, but the pastel color scheme carries through the next few scenes when Margaret settles down in California in a new apartment and job. Burton changes tones once Walter (Christoph Waltz) is in the picture and the two get married. Some of the simple scenes that follow these moments are constructed creatively and effectively and the moment I saw them, I knew I had to write about them. When Margaret makes an appearance for the first time at the club where her artwork is being sold and a buyer asks whom the artist is, the camera stays on Walter and Margaret for an uncomfortable amount of time. The two search for how to answer the question, but it’s also a moment for the viewers to notice the position of the characters and the key lighting. Margaret stands almost a head taller than her husband on the stairs and grips the painting. Walter is below her with a shadow casts across his face. Here, we have time to truly judge them (Walter especially). Is Walter really so controlling that he’s going to take credit for something he didn’t do? And is Margaret that insecure to let yet another man prevent her from the life she deserves? However, no matter how the question is answered the scene provides foreshadowing that eases any worried minds with the dark lighting and by Walter’s staggered position. Of course Margaret is going to eventually rise above her controlling husband and take ownership of the artwork she holds protectively. Another one of these moments is when the two argue in the living room about some of the secrets Margaret has discovered about her husband. By argue I mean Margaret quietly, but sharply reprimanding her husband. The position of both during this scene is similar. Walter sits in a chair with the same dark shadow across his face. Margaret stands above her husband, looking down, and realizes how much smaller he has become. This is yet another one of Burton’s ways to show who these people are and what they will ultimately become.

Margaret also progresses realistically in Big Eyes. We don’t have this frustrating, meek woman who wallows in self-pity and we also don’t have a dynamite female demanding the rights to her work, which would be reasonable and fine, but that’s not who Margaret Keane is. Margaret starts off naïve even though she insists to her closest friend in California that she isn’t and we so desperately want so see her grow a pair, which she thankfully does. But my awe isn’t in the moments Margaret gains strength. It is when her struggle unfolds on screen and we watch how these unimaginable situations take a toll on female artist. In the second half of the film, we bounce back and forth from Margaret trapped in a dark, dusty studio painting masterpieces for her husband, then Margaret roaming around outdoors looking completely out of place and completely unhappy. Margaret becomes someone unrecognizable and so does her artwork. She sincerely tries to keep her work a personal experience—something the film also comments on and a theme that’s present in other films this season. Several times through the minor characters in the film, Margaret’s largely commercialized big eye paintings are criticized for not being a true work of art. I can’t say I disagree and I’m not sure Margaret would either. After all, the more they are printed and the more she is forced to paint, the more artificial they become.

There are a few gaps that would make the film stronger if they only they fused together. Like Margaret’s relationship with her daughter. It is like her daughter is a ghost. She appears only in the background for most of the film: in the backseat of different cars or lingering in the hallways of new and old homes. Her name is inserted through the dialogue a few times—but only so we don’t forget she exists. However, I didn’t focus too much on these faults. After all, movies always have the possibility of being better. There are only a handful of films in my opinion that have nothing that needs to be done: Twelve Years a Slave, The Piano, and Adaptation to name a few. Big Eyes may not scream inventive or brilliant, but Burton certainly changes up his style and left me more impressed in an unexpected and strange way.