Christian Bale is a chameleon. He doesn’t merely play characters, he disappears into them. And with 35 years of acting credits under his belt, he more than has the filmography to prove it. Years before he donned Batman’s cape and cowl for Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight trilogy, Bale burst onto the scene as schoolboy Jim Graham in Steven Spielberg‘s Empire of the Sun. What followed was a string of audience and critically lauded performances in films such as Newsies, Public Enemies, The Machinistand The Big Short.
Now that Bale has joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Gorr the God Butcher in Thor: Love and Thunder, it’s the perfect time to take a look back at some of his most impressive (and transformative) roles. From one of the most recognizable superheroes of all time to a former United States vice president, here are Christian Bale’s seven best performances on screen.
Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle (2013)
It’s clear that Christian Bale is having a blast in American Hustle. The 70s-set comedy-crime hybrid features Bale as con artist Irving Rosenfeld who, along with his partner, Sydney (Amy Adams), are forced by the FBI to set up a sting operation involving the mayor of Camden, NJ. Despite being a criminal, Irving is hard to hate, both because of his humor and because he’s not especially dastardly like characters in more intense crime films like The Godfather and Scarface. Irving is a guy who is largely fun to watch because of his wheeling and dealing, his criminal schemes, and how he interacts with the people around him, especially Sydney and his unstable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Bale has proven before that he’s able to toe the line between comedy and drama, and his role in American Hustle is no exception.
Dicky Eklund in The Fighter (2010)
In The Fighter, Bale takes on the role of real-life professional boxer Dicky Eklund. Although Dicky is past his prime and addicted to drugs, he serves as his younger brother Micky’s (Mark Wahlberg) trainer. The film is set in Massachusets and while it would’ve been incredibly easy for Bale to go after the low-hanging fruit to make Dicky a caricature, he resists. Instead, Dicky is a three-dimensional and complicated character. Bale finds the humanity in Dicky and portrays him as someone who has demons and is deeply flawed, but also places a great importance on his family. Bale strives for authenticity here, and it works. His performance makes us despise Dicky’s actions, root for his successes, and cringe when he seems poised to make another decision that will cause him to lose everything. It all looks effortless but can only be the result of Bale’s careful studying of the real Dicky Eklund to inform his performance. The Academy seemed to agree, with the role earning Bale his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Bruce Wayne / Batman in The Dark Knight Trilogy
One of Bale’s most memorable roles – and certainly one of his best – is that of Batman / Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Although Bale appears as the Caped Crusader in all three films, The Dark Knight is his best performance. The script gives enough new development to the character that allows Bale to take a deep dive into the dual roles of Batman and Bruce Wayne. This is especially evident as Bruce navigates his romantic feelings towards Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) while attempting to keep her save from the Joker (Heath Ledger). The game of cat-and-mouse between Batman and the Joker is the backbone of the film and also where Bale brings his A-game. There’s a ferocity and intensity to his performance that adds a deeper layer of emotion to the character and makes the film sizzle. While a few actors have donned the cape and cowl since Bale’s tenure, he’s one of the best in bringing depth to both Batman and Bruce Wayne.
Trevor Reznik in The Machinist (2004)
Bale plays machinist Trevor Reznik who is plagued by insomnia as well as feelings of guilt and paranoia. As the film parcels out the truth behind Trevor’s feelings, Bale manages to convincingly portray someone who is both mentally and physically fatigued, tormented by his demons as well as his sleep disorder. It’s very much an internal performance rather than a flashy one like his role in American Hustle, but one that’s just as successful, especially as the final pieces of the puzzle fall into place and we understand the reason behind Trevor’s trauma. It’s also worth noting that The Machinist is one of Bale’s most physical transformations, losing over 60 pounds for the role to inform Trevor’s emaciated appearance. Aside from being a successful performance, it’s one that proves that Bale is extremely devoted to his craft, both mentally and physically.
Dick Cheney in Vice (2018)
Vice is another film for which Bale completely transforms himself. The make-up and prosthetics work is phenomenal, but Bale brings it to life with the small moments and mannerisms of his performance of former US Vice President Dick Cheney. Beginning from his days as a Wyoming lineman and White House intern and through his time as George W. Bush’s vice president, Cheney is the clear focus of the film. The dialogue is snappy, but Bale is able to convey even more emotion with a lingering stare, a strongly set jaw, or a firm stance. Cheney has long been criticized for his political opinions, though Bale manages to avoid portraying his version of Cheney as purely benevolent or malicious; rather, it’s a performance that’s successful largely because Bale is dedicated to making him a three-dimensional character with complex thoughts and feelings. We may not agree with the character’s politics or policies, but we understand him and the reasons behind the decisions that he makes in the film.
Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000)
American Psycho is a dark satire of American consumerism, vanity, and masculinity, and Patrick Bateman isn’t just one of Bale’s most memorable roles, it’s one of his best. As the young yuppie banker who moonlights as a serial killer, Bale slips into the role like a second skin. With a closet full of designer suits and an assortment of beauty products, Patrick is an interesting character to unpack. He’s as loathsome as he is terrifying, and Bale infuses him with the perfect blend of entitlement, narcissism, anxiety, and humor. Bale’s performance is even more impressive when he delves into Patrick’s darker tendencies. There’s an enthusiasm and charisma to his performance that fills the film with a frenetic energy and gives an electric quality to Patrick’s extreme rage (and jubilation). It’s easy to imagine that without Bale’s performance, the film’s horror – and humor – would fall flat.
Alfred Borden in The Prestige (2006)
The Prestige is one of Bale’s performances that usually flies under the radar. It’s not one that’s as bonkers as Patrick Bateman or as flashy as the Caped Crusader, but it’s one that shows Bale’s ability to play a character that’s understated yet fully realized. Bale plays working class magician Alfred Borden who engages in a bitter feud with rival magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) as they attempt to one-up each other’s tricks. The result is a character that is brought to life by Bale’s quietly intense performance. Whether in private moments of dialogue that reveal Borden’s secrets and obsessions, or more dramatic (and violent) moments involving Borden and Angier’s feud, Bale skillfully navigates the line between sympathy and villainy, not to mention infusing the film with a deep sense of mystery and intrigue. Who would’ve thought that magic could be so deadly?
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