The Machinist (2004)

Christian Bale went from 180 to 120 pounds for his role in The Machinist. I felt like I needed to state that first, because his emaciated frame is the centerpiece of this dark psychological suspense flick. Directed by Brad Anderson, Bale plays Trevor Reznick, a machinist who hasn’t slept in a year and whose health is clearly suffering for it. Reznick’s insomnia has not only wreaked havoc on his body, but also his mind, and while distracted at work he ends up causing an accident that costs a co-worker (Michael Ironside) his arm. As Reznick tries to find solace – first with a hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh), then with a warm airport waitress (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) and her son – it seems more apparent that there may be another accident that he should feel guilty for.

Deranged and confused, Bale is characteristically excellent. I can’t think of a single actor besides Daniel Day-Lewis who’s as committed to his parts as Christian Bale. It’s not just the weight loss – although that alteration was so extreme that an early shot of Bale shirtless will likely stay with you forever – but it’s the complete embrace of Trevor as an average hard-working guy who slips deeper and deeper into paranoia and delusions. Things start to get weird when Reznick meets Ivan, a worker he’s never seen before played by John Sharian. Ivan seems like a congenial fellow at first, but Sharian quickly turns him into an ominous force. Congenial on the surface, Ivan becomes a menacing shadow of a character. Nobody else has ever seen him before, and proving his existence ends up becoming Reznick’s primary concern.

The Machinist is a nightmare of a film. Harsh lighting throws shadows across Bale’s face, darkening his eye sockets and making him even more skeletal. The picture is as bleached as Reznick’s hands, having undergone some severe desaturation that matches the mood of the film precisely. In Trevor Reznick’s world, there is no color or joy. There is only a foreboding sense of some uncovered mystery, telegraphed to us through recurring images and instances of time standing still. A twist ending comes part and parcel with this subgenre of  “mind-bending” films, and in this case, a lot of the movie depends on its execution. So it’s unfortunate that it left me with mixed feelings.

It turns out that a year ago, Bale was the driver in a hit-and-run that left a young boy killed. Since then, his world has been littered with hallucinations having to do with the accident, which he apparently erased from his memory after driving through a tunnel. The waitress and her son, as we saw them, were never real – they were the victims of Bale’s crime, projected into his own delusional world. And Ivan turns out to be a manifestation of himself and the guilt he’s been suppressing. Or something.

It’s not a bad twist. On the contrary, it’s actually well thought-out and hinted at throughout the film. But in some ways, it seems a little too thought-out.  There are some cases where the symbolism being stressed seems overly specific, such as the clocks always showing the exact minute that the accident happened. Other times, there are whole threads that seem forced. One that reoccurs a few times involves fish in Rezner’s freezer going bad, and it seems to exist solely to include cryptic blood-dropping shots. A mysterious game of hangman that was pretty eerie in its first appearance similarly ends up remarkably expendable. Screenwriter Scott Kosar wrote this script while in film school, and unfortunately it shows, with symbolism that’s sometimes too contrived and heavy-handed.

Besides Bale’s haunting body frame, the most memorable part of this movie is the “Route 666” sequence. Bale takes the waitress’ young boy on a hellacious carnival ride that ends up forecasting the film’s ending. The message comes via garishly gory animatronics and images so frightening that the boy ends up having a seizure. The ride seems to come out of nowhere and might seem a little out-of-place, but it steeply descends into Willy-Wonka-tunnel-level madness and revitalizes the film just as it begins to lag. It’s a great sequence that acts as a suitable microcosm of the entire movie, from its cryptic story to its dark tone. And of course, its overbearing symbolism.

Final rating: 7/10

Stray Observations

  • “Trevor Reznick” may sound familiar because it’s derived from Trent Reznor. Just a little somethin-somethin for all you NIN fans who also tend to enjoy English-speaking foreign-made independent psychological films.
  • The first time I saw this movie, I thought Ivan was a black man. This time through I realized he wasn’t (it’s seriously that desaturated), but someone else I was watching with did. Then I determined that he seemed vaguely as though he was from Louisiana, but the actor is from Connecticut. There’s just something distinct about him that I can’t place, and I think that added to Ivan.
  • Those Hitchcockian strings were something else that felt a little forced.
  • After filming this, Bale was cast as Batman and had six months to bulk up. He got back up to his weight (180), then put on an additional 50 pounds of muscle (230), and then found out that that was a little much, so he dropped 40 pounds (190), officially earning my lifelong envy for having such versatile body mass.
–James A. Janisse
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