A review of Brad Anderson's "The Machinist"
Years from now, when cinephiles look back to 2004, they will find with little surprise that many of the best and most memorable movies of the year didn't come from Hollywood, nor were they acknowledged by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
"The Machinist" will be one of those movies.
Overlooked by many after a yearlong circuit of film festivals, this low-budget Spanish production with a top-notch international cast has all the makings of a cult piece, the kind that is rented over and over by angry teenagers with bleak wardrobes and even bleaker souls. Comparisons will be made: "Lost Highway", "Fight Club", "12 Monkeys", "Memento". Some of them will be missing the point, however, because, while also being a puzzle-movie that explores an individual's psychosis in an increasingly dehumanised world, "The Machinist" is so simply as a means to an end.
Nonetheless, just like all of those movies, "The Machinist" is not easy to watch. It doesn't want to entertain you. Its objective, what it sets out to do from the first frame, is to disturb you, to hurt you, to reach inside your brain and leave scars for life. Permanent damage.
It starts with the disquieting image of a skeletal and bleached creature trying to dispose of a corpse.
It starts with a question found on a post-it: 'Who are you?'
He is Trevor Reznik, a wreck of a man who hasn't slept in a year, and the bizarre condition has taken its ghastly toll on him, both physically and psychologically. He spends his days as a lifeless lathe machinist. During the night, when he isn't with pseudo-girlfriend whore Stevie, Trevor is at the local airport cafeteria, drinking coffee and chatting up pseudo-girlfriend waitress Marie. The first words either of the women directs at him echo those of the other: 'If you were any thinner, you wouldn't exist.'
His grip on reality is eroding as rapidly as his physique, and he knows it. He begins finding cryptic post-it notes around his own apartment, instead of the cryptic notes he had written himself. Everything in the misshapen industrial-gothic world he has to wade through feels grotesque and déjà vu. All the clocks seem permanently stuck at 1:30.
He meets a strange, Lynch-esque character, Ivan, a man with a toe transplanted in the place of his left thumb, who causes a horrific industrial accident for which Trevor is blamed, since no one else even believes this man exists. From that moment on, Ivan and his blood-red Mustang convertible will haunt an increasingly paranoid Trevor Reznik wherever he goes.
And that is only the beginning of Trevor's spiralling descent onto the edge of a full-blown mental breakdown.
What follows is a feat by any standards, a lesson on morality, and a remarkable study of mood and character, of the weight of guilt, of existentialism and of reality-speculation, carefully constructed through a series of clues into one man's inner world.
The universe created by Brad Anderson coalesces and synthesises so many different film, television, literature and pop culture references that it's hard to keep track of them all. The plot, razor-sharp, gritty and interconnected as few such character thrillers manage these days, carries the movie at a brilliant pace towards an ending that could have been taken right out of a "Twilight Zone" episode. There's a lot of David Lynch in there, and a lot of Alfred Hitchcock. One could almost argue that "The Machinist" is a remake of "Lost Highway" as Hitchcock would have done it: the precision and attention to visual detail, the noir palette, the single light-source interiors, the Bernard Herrmann–esque score with extensive use of the theremin. Allusions to "Crime and Punishment" and Dostoyevsky abound. Even Trevor Reznik's name, although declaredly an homage to Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, echoes an Eastern European Kafkian vibe that permeates the entire movie.
The gorgeous, grainy, almost black-and-white industrial cinematography transports the spectator immediately into a perpetually overcast world in which it's never quite clear how much is real and how much is a reflection of the title character's psyche.
The casting couldn't be better. After starving himself out of every whit of sexiness and glamour along with one third of his bodyweight in order to play this part, Christian Bale is emaciated to a point that genuinely shocks and makes us concerned for his health. The sacrifice and commitment is worth it, though, as Bale delivers one of the best performances of his career, embodying a Trevor Reznik that is always grasping at a normal existence just out of reach.
At one point, early in the movie, a dialogue takes place at the airport cafeteria, between Marie and Trevor, an ominous exchange that foretells his struggles:
'Trevor, is someone chasing you?'
'Not yet,' he says. 'But they will when they find out who I am.'
Behind him, an advertisement to some tropical destination shouts, "Escape!" - A scene that is reminiscent of the words "Disappear Here", used in a similar context of mounting psychosis in "American Psycho" (Mary Harron, 2000), curiously another of Bale's great roles.
Both movies are incredible pieces of precision and of profound morality, although with diametrically opposed approaches. "The Machinist", with its focal point on a single individual's nightmare, manages to end on a more hopeful, less cynical note than "American Psycho", which somehow weakens its impact. That weakness, though, is thoroughly compensated by clarity of intent and by the ultimate coming together of all the pieces of the puzzle, leaving no loose ends.
The greatest achievement of this ride to hell is a story that is so tightly constructed that it actually makes more sense as it goes along, even if it seems to make less.
But until the last few seconds of the film, the question remains: how do you escape from a nightmare, if you're not asleep?
The Machinist (2004)
Runtime: 102 min
Directed by Brad Anderson
Written by Scott Koser
Starring: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón