As Bane raises Batman above his head and prepares to snap his back in The Dark Knight Rises, Bane postulates, “I was wondering what would break first: your spirit or your body!” The scene is faithful to the comic books for its “krakt” intensity, but also reflexive insofar as it speaks to Christian Bale’s acting career, which has been founded on consistent bodily transformation and, before donning the cape for Christopher Nolan’s franchise, a lack of commercial success that could have easily broken the actor’s spirit in becoming an A-list star. Yet, even after the Batman films, Bale’s financial viability removed from franchise confines remains questionable, and one wonders with Out of the Furnace opening this weekend if Bale’s name alone is enough to guarantee a $10 million opening.
Bale’s career began as a child actor in films like Empire of the Sun and Newsies, but it wasn’t until 2000’s American Psycho that he found a leading role that began to define his star persona. As Patrick Bateman, Bale’s slender, muscular body and strikingly handsome face were apparent enough, but perhaps more surprising was the ease with which the actor seemed to project Bateman’s affability-masking-psychopathy lifestyle, wielding an ax with the same quotidian detachment as when he visits the tanning salon. Roger Ebert said in his review of the film that “Bale is heroic in the way he allows the character to leap joyfully into despicability; there is no instinct for self-preservation here, and that is one mark of a good actor.” Audiences generally agreed, as the $7 million film grossed just over $15 million domestically.
But Bale’s career saw critical and financial failure for the next four years, with the dreary Reign of Fire tanking at the box office and a string of supporting roles failing to connect with either critics or audiences. At least, until 2004’s The Machinist revealed Bale as an actor willing to go beyond Method acting and into borderline insanity, looking emaciated to an alarming degree as Trevor Reznik, an insomniac questioning his sanity. Ebert again: “[Bale] is so gaunt, his face so hollow, he looks nothing like the actor we’re familiar with.” Grossing just over $1 million, audiences were unwilling to subject themselves to the darker side of what would become Bale’s actorly m.o.: drastic vacillations between dapper leading men and tortured, afflicted souls.
Perhaps, then, that’s why Bale found his home with critics and audiences alike as Bruce Wayne, which enabled Bale to put on a physique suitable for a GQ spread, but revel in the pain and torment of a character like Reznik and introduce what has become a profitable trend at the box office: the gloomy, brooding superhero. Although Nolan is often credited with pioneering the type for 21st-century tastes, Bale gave it a recognizable and empathetic face. The same could be said in 2010’s The Fighter, which enabled Bale to return to his hyper-Method ways, though by playing an addled, if empathetic, character within the confines of a genre film in which Mark Wahlberg brought the beef, the character functioned in contrast, rather than front and center—which was much more palatable for commercial audiences.
Yet, Bale has struggled in recent years playing characters that deviate from this proven combination; though Rescue Dawn saw the no-brainer teaming of Bale with Werner Herzog and led to much critical acclaim, audiences remained perplex by Bale’s presence without the muscle-bound physique or witty charm. With Terminator: Salvation, the marketing campaign did little to afford Bale’s intensity the proper stage, instead offering machine-on-machine pyrotechnics as the film’s central draw. Public Enemies nearly made $100 million domestically, but the $100 million budget, combined with Michael Mann’s preference for ambiguity over closure, rendered the film a minor failure and left audiences (and critics) rather lukewarm.
Without question, Bale remains one of Hollywood’s most versatile and risk-taking leading men, perhaps trailing only James Franco and Ryan Gosling at this point as actors willing to undertake projects regardless of commercial prospects. Make no mistake: These are decisions to be commended, not questioned. However, when discussing commercial prospects, Bale remains a wild card, which is why anyone expecting his name to attract audiences to Out of the Furnace should reconsider, especially since the role appears to fit rather messily into the qualities audiences have historically sought from the actor. Certainly, with American Hustle later this month, David O. Russell, Bale, and the notable ensemble should have a considerable hit on their hands. For now, with Bale sporting long hair, a dirty white t-shirt, and a hunting rifle, don’t be surprised if audiences give this one a shrug just as they did to the equally grungy looking Homefront last weekend.
Box Office Weekend Predictions
1. Frozen: $44.4 -34%
2. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: $39.3 -47%
3. Out of the Furnace: $8.3 NEW
4. Thor: The Dark World: $7.6 -31%
5. The Best Man Holiday: $4.7 -42%%
6. Delivery Man: $4.4 -36%
7. Homefront: $4 -43%
8. The Book Thief: $3.9 -20%
9. Philomena: $3.2 -14%
10. Black Nativity: $2.3 -37%