The Machinist

The Machinist

Spain/USA, 2004. Rated R. 102 minutes.

Cast: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Michael Ironside, John Sharian, Larry Gilliard Jr, Reg E. Cathey, Anna Massey, Matthew Romero Moore
Writer: Scott Kosar
Music: Roque Baños
Cinematography: Xavi Giménez
Producer: Julio Fernández
Director: Brad Anderson


Grade: B Review by Carlo Cavagna

The script by Scott Alan Kosar (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Amityville Horror) calls for a protagonist who looks like a “walking skeleton.” That's exactly what you get. With his every tendon, joint, and bone outlined against skin stretched taut, Trevor Reznik looks less like a human being and more like an anatomy class visual aid. Director Brad Anderson spends so much screen time lingering over Trevor's body as he stretches and moves that The Machinist sometimes resembles a yoga video for the undead. A hooker named Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) observes that if Trevor were any skinnier, he wouldn't exist. His boss is more succinct. “I think you look like toasted shit.”

The actor who portrays Trevor is so dangerously underweight that it takes a while to recognize Christian Bale. Even in a time when weight gains and losses in the service of a role have become commonplace, Bale has accomplished an astonishing change, dropping a full sixty pounds to portray the 120-pound Trevor. And, clearly, he has gained the weight right back again, because he just finished shooting Batman Begins, which no doubt required a more heroic physique. How did Bale do it? “I didn't eat; that was it.”

The point is that Trevor, who claims not to have slept in a year, is a man so consumed by Something that he is wasting away to nothingness. Had Bale simply slimmed down a bit, you wouldn't have believed that he literally could be wasting away. By shedding such a drastic amount of weight, Bale physically manifests Trevor's internal torture, and therefore, whatever is haunting or pursuing Trevor a ppears all the more dangerous and horrifying.

Christian Bale
Christian Bale looks like "toasted shit" in The Machinist.

Trevor is, as the title suggests, a machinist. His lonely existence consists of repetitive work at a local factory (where he irritates his boss by quoting labor regulations chapter and verse), late-night suppers at the airport diner where he flirts with the amiable waitress (Aitan Sánchez-Gijón), and occasional paid liaisons with Stevie, who has a soft spot for him.

All is not well, however. Trevor can't sleep. Mysterious Post-It notes appear on his refrigerator, taunting him with games of Hangman and questions like, “Who are you?” When a bizarre big-toothed stranger named Ivan (John Sharian) shows up at the factory, Trevor's downward spiral accelerates, resulting in a gruesome workplace accident involving professional screen villain Michael Ironside (Highlander 2, Starship Troopers). Little inconsistencies begin to add up to big questions. It is not giving away too much to say that Trevor begins finding it difficult to separate reality from hallucination.

Thanks to Bale's remarkable dedication and immersion, Trevor is a consistently compelling protagonist, even when he's not particularly likeable. Director Brad Anderson, who seems to make only romantic comedies (Next Stop Wonderland, Happy Accidents) and psychological horror (Session 9), has something to do with the film's success as well. Narratively and thematically, The Machinist is a logical extension of Anderson 's work in Session 9. It's even more psychological and introspective, so much so that Anderson failed to find a U.S. source of financing, and instead made the film in Spain. Unlike his previous films, Anderson didn't write or edit The Machinist, but it is unquestionably his work. As in Session 9, Anderson plays with bizarre sounds, which often provide scene transitions. It always seems to be 1:30 am. The film appears to have all color sucked out of it, except for Ivan's electric red 1969 Pontiac Firebird. An old-fashioned Bernard Hermann-style soundtrack by Roque Baños heightens the haunted, noir mood.

In some respects The Machinist is a stronger film than Session 9. The Machinist coheres better as a story, and seems a more assured and sophisticated film, relying on the audience to pay close attention rather than engaging in scare tactics. However, it is less of an edge-of-your-seat movie than Session 9. Rather than gripping, The Machinist is just creepy and disturbing. Obviously, the setting of Session 9—an actual abandoned insane asylum that cast members have called the scariest place on earth—has something to do with Session 9's thrills. But the main difference is that Session 9 keeps you guessing, while The Machinist does not. Because it's patently obvious that much of the film is in Trevor's head, your suspense may occasionally be replaced by irritation—“Okay, get on with the explanation already!”

Ivan is a character straight out of David Lynch, or a half-dozen other recent films. He's not particularly effective, because there isn't much doubt about who or what he is. Anderson borrows rather obviously from his own Session 9 and other films like Memento, the original Norwegian Insomnia, and Secret Window. If you've seen even one or two of these films, where The Machinist is going won't be difficult to figure out, and you may find yourself occasionally impatient to get there. However, The Machinist remains a sublimely crafted film, so if you can forget about the destination and lose yourself in the sensory experience, you're in for quite a treat.

Review © October 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Paramount Classics. All Rights Reserved.

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