There’s perhaps no indie director currently working today that seems tailor made to use Christian Bale’s skills quite like James Gray. The director’s numerous collaborations with Joaquin Phoenix have set a powerful precedent for the ways in which he can dig beneath intense screen presences to reveal their complex, tortured souls. Bale’s characters — be it Bruce Wayne in Nolan’s Batman movies or Russell Baze in the gritty “Out of the Furnace” — are often battling the pressures of who the public needs them to be versus who they truly are behind closed doors, and that construction is often the central crux to Gray’s male characters. Even the villainous Bruno Weiss in “The Immigrant” takes subversive roads to redemption since Gray rarely chooses to keep his character’s boxed inside our first perceptions of them. Gray’s films have run the gamut from period dramas to crime thrillers and dramatic romances; all of which we can see Bale fitting into with all of Gray’s masculine undermining.
Over her five feature films to date, Kelly Reichardt has proved to be a filmmaker of profound patience. Her characters reveal themselves not in expository monologues or plot-rattling twists, but in the slow, natural and unassuming ways they interact with the people around them and, most essentially, with the natural world and landscapes they find themselves in. Reichardt is certainly not as experimental as Terrence Malick, who Bale has worked with three times now (“The New World,” “Knight of Cups” and an upcoming untitled musical drama), but she’s no less spiritually inclined to uncover the philosophies and introspective conundrums that compel her characters to make the choices they make and commit the acts they do. Through Malick, Bale has made clear he has no problem relinquishing his mainstream appeal to put himself in the dense and challenging aesthetics of a thoughtful auteur, and Reichardt would provide soulful outlet for Bale in this department.
Bale has already had more than enough experience with visually precise filmmakers like Malick and Nolan, so it would be befitting (and beneficial) for him to explore the opposite end of the spectrum. Antithetical to these filmmakers’ work is that of Jim Jarmusch, who takes an interest in the real, mundane and quotidian. His long stretches of silence punctuate human loneliness and detachment, while his chatty characters almost always reveal a desperate grab for human connection in such films like “Stranger than Paradise” and “Mystery Train.” Jarmusch’s interest in the loneliness of the world plays as blank and desolate, almost post-apocalyptic. The minimalist mold of Jarmusch’s visual monotony gives way to conversational slices-of-life between his characters, and it would serve Bale good to eschew his physicality for a dialogue-centric character study. He’d be a perfect fit for Jarmusch’s episodic tidings in the vain of “Coffee and Cigarettes” and “Night on Earth.” These idiosyncratic anthologies, filled with mundane and quasi-philosophical dialogue, encapsulate that subtle loneliness that Bale is so good at.
Bale has experimented and expanded into lighter and more comedic fare recently with films like “The Big Short” and “American Hustle,” films that don’t fit neatly into either the drama or comedy genre and have the festering bite of their director’s vision boiling underneath. Who better to keep this train rolling than Todd Solondz? The director has carved himself a niche of unflinching comedies that force the viewer to find comedy in the painfully awkward, embarrassing and downright abhorrent. Time and time again, he delves into the middle-class facade, revealing hidden abnormal behaviors, alienations and ambiguities in individuals. Within the strange and uncomfortable, Solondz digs and unearths the inherent comedy within his stories, and Bale’s work in the aforementioned titles suggest he could do wonders tackling one of Solondz’s complex, unmitigated characters. Like many of Bale’s creations, Solondz’s are neither inherently good nor evil, but lie somewhere in between — flawed and broken, capable of benevolence and malevolence.
Saulnier has only made two feature films to date — “Blue Ruin” and current festival favorite “Green Room” — but both are artfully visceral revenge stories that have a rugged intensity that is unquestionably a perfect fit for Bale. When it comes to indie directors who can effectively walk the line between character drama and action thrills, Nicolas Winding Refn is a name that most often comes up. Refn could probably do something great with Bale, but there’s almost something too pristine about his work that seems more fit for the handsome face of Ryan Gosling than Bale’s rough and jagged gaze. Bale has a spontaneous fever behind his eyes that make his characters utterly unpredictable at every moment, and this is a quality that would no doubt thrive in the widely controlled world of Saulnier. The director is no doubt on his way to bigger and more star-studded features (he went from having an unknown actor in his first movie to landing Patrick Stewart in his second), so here’s hoping he lands Bale sometime soon.
Bale’s been balancing heavy dramatic undertones with slightly more humorous fare as we made note of above (see Solondz), and while the actor no doubt excels in heavy dramas and dark character studies, part of us really wants to see Bale continue to ride the light. No filmmaker could reveal warmer and more affectionate sides to Bale while preserving his inherent complexity better than Lynn Shelton, whose flare for dramedy has given actresses like Keira Knightley, Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt some of their most charming and interesting roles to date. Shelton is a ridiculously talented storyteller. She can mine honest emotions and naturalistic performances from even the most sitcom-y situations (see “Laggies” and “Touchy Feely” as examples). Her films could be eye-rolling cliches in a less talented director’s hands, but Shelton can access the real in the most bizarre and idiosyncratic story. Bale would have to show a new side of himself in front of Shelton’s lens, and it’s a side that’s been a long time coming now.