The thickly cheekboned Christian Bale has been in three dozen films since appearing in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (it's still his most memorable role), yet we're no closer to discovering what's going on inside his head. Often good and sometimes better, he seems to perform more than act; there's a sense in which he doesn't shape characters, or believe in characters at all. Movement, wariness, and intelligence -- those are the Bale virtues (the Matt Damon of the Jason Bourne movies learned a lot from him). Bale's become the go-to guy for post-Method commitment, accepting humiliations that would make fellow actors blanche: lose 60 pounds, skin a snake with his teeth, banter with Katie Holmes.
Rescue Dawn needs Bale's stolid commitment; the other actors, save for a tremulous Steve Zahn, sell their archetypes too strenuously. Werner Herzog's jungle film seems strangely detached. Until Bale's Dieter Dengler escapes from a Laotian prison, his ordeals faze neither him nor us (these ordeals include dangling upside down with an ant hill tied to his face and enduring the harangues of Jeremy Davies doing his third or fourth variation on Dennis Weaver's motel clerk in Touch of Evil). Herzog's such an autocrat that I can't say he was unaware that Dengler's the all-American bore; I suppose Herzog's conceit is that, despite all the horrors, Dengler suffers no comeuppance at all. This is the only way in which the Top Gun-worthy ending makes sense. Which is just as well, as Herzog regards human erotics with the mild curiosity of a caterpillar or boa constrictor behind the viewfinder (think of how your dog stares when you're about to have sex). The intimation of a lonely, situation-enforced intimacy between Bale and Zahn forms, then dissipates, like the mist in the mountain peaks heralding the onset of the rainy season.
I can't be the only one who prefers Herzog's documentaries to his feature films. Watching the first two-thirds of Rescue Dawn, I kept wishing he'd filmed another Burden of Dreams to accompany this one. Alas, this excellent 2006 profile is all we're likely to get. Herzog should have allowed Bale to yell, "I am not going to feckin’ die for you, Werner!” in his best Welch accent.