The Great Obsessive

Photo: Kevin Scanlon

Monomania is Christian Bale’s thing. His wildly diverse signature roles are all driven by a hyperintense single-mindedness: Batman, with his vengeance fetish; Bateman, with his brand-name bloodlust; The Prestige’s magician, who sacrifices everything for the perfect trick; Rescue Dawn’s Vietnam War pilot, who only wants to fly. No doubt, Bale is attracted to these obsessives because he’s one, too: the kind of control freak who conducts extreme makeovers on his own body, repeatedly—carving his physique for American Psycho; dropping 63 pounds for The Machinist; hulking up for the Batsuit; emaciating himself for Werner Herzog, an expert in reckless obsessives who, unsurprisingly, tells me that Bale is “the greatest actor of his generation.”

“I never planned on being an actor with a type,” Bale grudgingly admits after this monomania theory is proposed, “but I guess we all are eventually. There’s something about yourself in every character.”

This fall, he will play two more willful men. In the Western 3:10 to Yuma, he’s a desperate cattleman determined to bring a flashy crook (Russell Crowe) to justice, no matter the obvious consequences to both himself and his children. While Crowe philosophizes, flirts, and twiddles his fancy hat, Bale’s quiet focus undermines all that scenery-chewing—to such an extent that the film becomes more about why this cattleman won’t stop than what will happen when good guy and bad guy finally have their showdown. “Even Jesus, we’re told, was never a father,” says Bale, bluntly describing the rancher’s predicament. “Well, it’s one thing to sacrifice yourself when nobody else is going to suffer for it. But is he doing this because he wants to do the right thing? Or is it pure pride?”

And then there is Bale’s double role in what is undoubtedly the most mysterious of this season’s much-anticipated films, I’m Not There, by Todd Haynes. He’s playing “two incarnations of Bob Dylan,” alongside Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, and Richard Gere—all of whom are also starring as Bob Dylan. But if these actors play various manifestations of Dylan’s notoriously elusive vibe, Bale gets to embody him at his most direct: as sixties political prophet and eighties born-again evangelist. Haynes calls Bale’s parts “two halves of that essentially morally determined Bob Dylan.” Bale calls them “two men on a real quest for truth.”

The film is the fall’s biggest artistic gamble, in the spirit of Dylan at his most playfully provocative. “There’s definitely an attraction to seeing somebody putting themselves on a target range—and targeting their audience at the same time,” says Bale of Dylan. “He was creating a battlefront.”

Bale says he’s filmed a scene in which Dylan is “given an award for being the mouthpiece of his generation—and he stands up there and says a big fuck-you, very poetically.” He admires that kind of stance. “Since I was a kid, I’ve always had this image of Jimi Hendrix playing his guitar so much that his fingers are bleeding—and there’s probably no truth to it, but it doesn’t matter. I just remember thinking what a great image, somebody loving something so much they don’t even feel the pain.”

3:10 to Yuma
Directed by James Mangold, Lionsgate; September 7.

I’m Not There
Directed by Todd Haynes, Weinstein Co.; November 21.

The Great Obsessive