Flaunt (November 2004)

BALE BONDS

There is a scene in the fiercely ridiculous 1992 Disney musical, Newsies, wherein Christian Bale – playing peppy, persecuted pauper/paperboy Jack Kelly – stands on trial before a courtroom of his condemners. Fenced in by his accusers’ unjust claims, he bravely turns to his fellow news-toting ragamuffins huddled along the walls and, eyes twinkling, beseeches them in broken, illiterate cockney:

“Remembuh Teddy Roosevelt? Remembuh me and Teddy Roosevelt ridin’ in dat carriage?” This is presumably an important event in the film’s narrative arc, but it’s difficult to say for sure because it is, quite by accident, distractingly hilarious.

Fast forward 12 years to the industrial morality nightmare, The Machinist. The very same Christian Bale – this time as a delusional factory worker with the Nine Inch Nails-y name, Trevor Reznik – now stands shirtless in a prostitute’s kitchen hallucinating that Jennifer Jason Leigh is cavorting behind his back with a dark, devilish stranger. As his fears and rage capsize, Bale flings a pile of plates to the floor and, eyes burning, screams maniacally in an American accent, “You filthy lying whore!” This is an important event in the film’s narrative arc because it shows Reznik severing contact with his last human companion. Needless to say – and not by accident – it is resolutely un-hilarious.

This, as any 10th grade English teacher would be more than happy to point out, is juxtaposition. On one hand, you have sunny, paper-peddling rapscallions. On the other hand, deranged, diseased victims of guilt-induced madness. Two polar opposite filmic universes. One man. Sure, he’s an actor, and it is an actor’s paid profession to pretend to be whomever the person offering the biggest check says to be, but still. That’s not quite a sufficient explanation for the extremees of this set of circumstances. For, without a doubt, there is a yawning rift in Christian Bale’s filmography – an odd crossroads whereat he seems to have paused and assessed the way the wind was blowing, then changed course, opting for the road less traveled. And damn has that made all the difference.

Bale, of course, basically denies this abstract division. “I actually take issue with the idea of there being ‘serious roles.’ I think comedic actors are just as serious about what they do as anyone else. For instance, I love Beverly Hills Ninja with Chris Farley,” he swears. “I think it’s absolutely brilliant. But it would never be called a ‘serious role.'”

Having seen the film in question, I can’t say it’s at all ambiguous as to why Farley’s performance might fail to call to mind the higher thespian adjectives like “serious,” “distinguished,” or “weighty” (well, perhaps the latter…). The late Mr. Farley, however, tended intensely more toward the farce side of the comedic spectrum than, say, Bale’s pitch-black, humorous turn in American Psycho, or his rollicking comic book contribution to Shaft. As in all things, there is a gradient.

But in moviegoers’ terms – which is to say, the “bigpicture” – Bale’s blossomed into an altogether different actor than the one hinted at in his early work. Long gone are the safe Disney/Spielbergian, good-time, family-fun films (JEmpire of the Sun, Swing Kids, even Little Women), replaced instead by decadence (Velvet Goldmine), moral vagaries {Laurel Canyon), and, well, Batman {Batman Begins). And this altered trajectory angles an even sharper descent into emotional wastelands and psychological slums with Bale’s latest and greatest dark-night-of-the-soul role, The Machinist.

Directed by Brad Anderson and written by Scott Kosar, The Machinist tells the gaunt, strung-out story of a fucked-up factory worker flung into insomnia and, slowly, insanity by a gruesome, repressed trauma. Like a more minimalist Memento melded with Crime and Punishment (minus the murder and Russians), it is, in Bale’s own words, “not quite everybody’s cup of tea.” One’s preferred beverage notwithstanding, The Machinist is a powerfully scouring, scarring, and above all, skinny work of art. That is, Bale dropped a shocking 60 pounds for the part.

There is no over-exaggerating this physical transformation. His once ruddy cheeks are caved-in and sallow, morbidly emphasizing the shape of his skull which leers from within thin skin. His ribcage digs against too taut flesh and his limbs are simple spindles, bloodless and bony Bale’s pale, frail frame is so severe, so disturbing, it threatens to steal the spotlight and upstage the story in almost every scene. It’s a strange filmic failing, but undeniable. His emaciation is the movie’s true star, with Bale’s body giving a tour de (excess) force performance. One can’t help but wonder: why?

“You see,” Bale begins, speaking in a calm, commanding cadence, “there are some movies where you don’t have to do much preparation. But for this one it was very essential to the portrayal of the character. I had to do a lot of preparation and it wasn’t much fun,” he confesses. ‘And it was all in the belief that it was going to payoff because we all agreed on how to make this movie and we all decided this was going to be a stunning movie. And,” he says proudly, “it turned out to be, so that’s very gratifying.”

Also gratifying, one presumes, is the feeling of real food finally entering into Christian Bale’s tummy once shooting ceased. The movie took eight weeks to film, throughout which he resolutely regulated his body weight at a dainty, dedicated 120 pounds. Acquaintances unaware of his starving artistry who chanced upon him during this era were understandably unsettled by his appearance and were prone to mutter, “Poor Christian. It’s so sad to see such a fine man destroyed by drugs…” or whatnot. But, for Bale, the sacrifice was fully worth it because, unlike so many movies in an actor’s life, this one was personal.

“When I was a kid, I was a big fan of scary movies. They were definitely my favorite kind of movie and I very much enjoyed scaring myself – going for walks in the dark and seeing how scared I could get. And, for a long time, I had kind of forgotten that feeling,” he reflects, wistfully “But then I saw Session 9, Brad [Anderson’s) first movie, and I got that same feeling! And it was great to feel that again.

‘Also, I hadn’t worked in about a year and a half and I was really looking for something that would be a successful movie in my own terms, not necessarily commercially,” he explains. “Then I got the script for The Machinist and I loved it. Brad and Scott and myself set about to make a movie that all of us would actually like to see ourselves.”

Their quest eventually led them to Barcelona, where the liberal and generous film company Filmax happily agreed to fund the project as long as it was shot in Spain. The original script set the story in San Pedro, CA, but it didn’t matter. The Machinist transpires in filthy factories, lonely apartments, and silent side streets, all totally devoid of distinguishing characteristics. No tapas bars prance on the periphery

“I mean, Barcelona’s a really beautiful city,” Bale waxes softly “So of course we went to all the ugliest parts of it. We were filming down in the sewer. I was running through shit, knee-deep in dirt, turds. I even fell over in it.” It? Or them? Either way, gross.

His days of wallowing in filth, however, are very finite, as he ascended straight from The Machinist to the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman Begins, with Bale playing, amazingly, the man in black himself (no, not Johnny Cash). The franchise’s fifth installment employs an overkill ensemble (Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson) in an effort to return the caped crusader to the moody, macabre throne Tim Burton built in the original Batman, a firm of substance and atmosphere and depth – qualities utterly lacking in its three sequels. Whether or not Nolan succeeds in resurrecting Batman from the garish grave of cartoon bullshit in which he now rests, the role will undoubtedly catapult Bale into the blinding limelight, a place he does not much relish, as it quite often turns actors into touchy, fearful creatures.

“I think when actors start being cautious, that’s when their careers are over,” he says, sternly. “As an actor, you can’t ever be afraid to make a fool of yourself.” Thus is the mystery of Newsies explained.

Of course, only time will tell for sure, but odds are Christian Bale will one day be known as one of the greats. He’s healthy, wealthy, and wiser than most, and he’s already proven he’s not afraid to muck around in feces, race Batmobiles, or back Beverly Hills Ninja publicly And we can’t all claim that.

When it comes to life outside movies, though, Bale doesn’t have quite as much to say. He’s a private man, and his oddly optimistic and strangely practical perspective rings a bit weirder when discussing non-filmic matters. For instance, his stance on hobbies.

“I keep meaning to take up a hobby, but I just keep not finding the time,” he sighs. “When I do, though, I hope I like it. They’re supposed to be important, so it’d be nice if it felt meaningful.”

By Britt Brown