A film review by Craig J. Koban July 14, 2009



5th Anniversary Retrospective Review

2004, R, 126 mins.


Trevor Reznik: Christian Bale / Stevie: Jennifer Jason Leigh / Marie: Aitana Sanchez-Gijon / Ivan: John Sharian / Miller: Michael Ironside / Jackson: Larry Gilliard / Jones: Reg E. Cathey / Mrs. Shrike: Anna Massey

Directed by Brad Anderson / Written by Scott Kosar

Malicious on-set verbal tirades aside, is Christian Bale a complete lunatic? 

Let me get back to that in a minute.

As for THE MACHINIST...it's a surreal exploration into one man’s nagging and paralyzing guilt.  It's also a masterful and enormously effective demonstration of one of the most delicate and tricky genres to pull off: the psychological thriller.   

Finding influences as far ranging as the literary works of Dostoevsky to the cinema of Hitchcock (with some obvious parallels to David Fincher’s FIGHT CLUB), Brad Anderson’s film finds just the right subtle balance of suspense, inner pathos, and narrative complexity.  Its underlining story contains Post-It notes, spooky carnival rides, a disappearing body, hallucinations, an amiable and befriending prostitute, a very creepy looking bald man, and one pathetic and frail man that is trying to make sense of his surroundings while trying to uncover clues behind a very personal mystery.  

THE MACHINIST is a work littered with symbolism, subliminal visual clues, and has a plot that is like a mosaic painting with certain pieces missing and only when the film ends does the final image become clear.  It certainly uses an impeccable visual style and considerable amount of story devices and tricks, but I think what makes THE MACHINIST one of the more underrated thrillers of the decade is for how intense and intimate it is in its assessment of a man’s deteriorating psyche that is plagued by a traumatizing event in his past that he may or may not remember.  

Or...maybe he chooses not to. 

The film also solidified its star, Christian Bale, as one of the most stridently focused, fearlessly determined, and fanatically dedicated actors of his generation.  His tour-de-force performance here is one where you simultaneously find it easy to hold it in the highest esteem while struggling with one unavoidable and nagging question: 

Is Bale a complete lunatic? 

The more discretely powerful elements of THE MACHINIST have sadly been overwhelmed over the last few years since its 2004 release by the sheer enormity and – let’s face – recklessness of Bale’s performance in it.  Yes, this is the same film where he starved himself for over four months prior to filming in order to make his character look absolutely decrepit.   According to the film’s fantastic commentary on the recent Blu-ray release, Bale apparently subsisted on a diet of one cup of coffee and an apple (or a can of tuna) each day…for four months.  That's it.  He lost, in total, a shocking 62 pounds, thus reducing his chiseled and rock hard Patrick Batemen-esque physique to a gangly and skeletal 120 pounds. 

If this unparalleled commitment to the craft of acting and immersing oneself in a role does not seem crazy enough, Bale even wished to go ever further by dropping down to 100 pounds, but the producers and director rightfully convinced him otherwise.  I see their point: watching Bale during on-set interviews on the supplemental section of the Blu-ray – looking like he is about to pass out in mid-sentence – is horrific.  Bale ceased being a petty actor: he emerged as something that is barely recognizable as being human.  Perhaps what’s even more astonishing is seeing how he totally rebounded in the wake of THE MACHINIST to take on his next role, that of playing the Dark Knight Detective in Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed comic book reboot, BATMAN BEGINS.  Bale would regain his 60 pounds and put back on all of his muscle he lost in order to adequately fill the visage of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego.  Seeing these two performances within the vacuum of a few years is to witness one of the most extraordinary actor transformations in the history of the medium.  

There is, however, one little nasty side effect to seeing Bale so unconditionally emaciated and fragile in the film: it’s easy to let his appearance cast a shadow over the worth of the film on a whole.  I mean, losing this much weight for a role certainly is something that most actors would ever dare attempt, but there still remains the notion that what he did to himself is unpardonably dangerous and potentially fatal.  Clearly, he wished to look like he was on death’s door because of the needs of his part of an deeply disturbed insomniac, but consider the health risks:  Dramatic fluctuations in one’s body mass and weight place indisputable wear and tear on the heart, not to mention that the human body is not meant to go through such a lethal physical change in such a short time.  The Blu-ray commentary track further reveals that Bale’s weight loss had many unexpected negative impacts on the set, like, for instance, impeding his ability to run in action sequences.  At his worst, Bale lost so much weight that he barely had any leg muscles left.  Yuck. 

I could go on and on regarding Bale’s unwavering and homicidal performance extremes here, but discussing it is crucial when it comes to the larger ramifications of the rest of THE MACHINIST.  The actor’s appearance is necessary in that it compliments the film’s visual nihilism and misery.  It’s unnecessary in the sense that it could be distracting from the rest of the film’s merits.  I am of the category of critics that feel that there is an odd symbiosis between the look of Bale and the rest of the film: they are two interlocking entities that compliment and reinforce the other.  Critics who modestly panned the film because Bale’s zombie-like appearance sidetracked the audiences’ attention miss why it's so crucial.  Would THE MACHINIST have worked so resolutely without Bale’s dangerously self-destructive method acting?  The fact that he looks so dreadfully unhealthy helps with our full immersion within the film: we believe in it more because Bale’s performance almost transcends acting.  Rarely have actors lost themselves in parts to the point where they become their parts, which, as a consequence, affects the audience’s buy in. 

The story behind the making of the film is almost as compelling as that of Bale’s fierce preparation for his role.  The film’s script, written on spec straight out of film school by Scott Kosar, was turned down by nearly every major Hollywood studio for several years.  When director Anderson came on to the scene he assisted Kosar with trying to secure financing in order to make the film, but found little success in America.  Seeing as there appeared no interest by anyone to make the film in the US, a intriguing compromise and source of funding emerged:  Fantastic Factory of Filmax and Castelao Productions of Spain jumped in and gave the necessary financial assistance to give the film the green light.   

THE MACHINIST emerged as a rather odd bit of collaborative filmmaking: Its main star is from Wales (playing an American), the director and screenwriter are American, the setting for the film is Los Angeles, but it was recreated in Barcelona both in exterior and interior shots.  Seeing as Anderson wished to give THE MACHINIST a haunting expressionistic aura, the shooting of the film in Spain proved to be one of the production’s greatest coups.  Without question, the production design of THE MACHINIST places enough subtle props throughout scenes to easily reinforce that it takes place in America (in the form of cigarette and alcohol labels, traffic signs, public telephones, retail signage, cars, etc.), but having L.A. re-created on some of the rougher streets of Barcelona gives THE MACHINIST a dreamlike sensation of ethereal menace.  It feels familiar and has a sense of the strange and otherworldly, which is hand in hand with the film’s morally convoluted tone. 

In the film Bale plays Trevor Reznik, a man that, for reason made initially unclear, has been a chronic insomniac for over a year.  As a result of his sleeping disordering Trevor has lost a considerable amount of weight and when we first see him we truly wince and want to look away: this is a shrill, feeble, and ghastly looking specimen of a man.  To make matters worse, he also suffers from strange compulsions, like washing his hands as often as possible and playing games of Hang-man on Post-It notes on his fridge, which gives him cryptic messages that he takes way too literally.   

He has no real life outside of his night job working in a tool and die factory.  When he’s not working he’s either scrubbing his dark and dreary apartment clean (again, for reasons unexplained at first) or is desperately trying to forge the only concrete relationship he seems to have with another person, a whore (played wonderfully by Jennifer Jason Leigh) that he has regular flings with.  When Trevor is not with his call girl he finds himself drawn to a pretty airport coffee shop waitress, Marie (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) that also works graveyard shifts; he visits her on a regular basis every night and reveals aspects of his wounded soul to her (“I have not slept in a whole year,” he sorrowfully tells her). 

Trevor’s treacherously self-destructive life hits a fork in the road with the appearance of a rather large and imposing bald man named Ivan (John Sharian, given his part a quiet spoken level of sinister malevolence).  He, much like Trevor, is a scarred man, but more in a literal sense: he once lost some fingers in a drill press and the docs replaced his digits with some of his toes.  Ivan becomes a focal point of intense fascination for Trevor, so much so that he distracts Trevor one fateful day that leads to a horribly gruesome accident on the factory floor that causes one of their co-workers to lose most of his arm.  Trevor’s already shaky stability and sense of rampant paranoia becomes even more entrenched by this incident, and especially when he pleads with his fellow estranged co-workers and bosses that Ivan distracted him, which caused the accident.  Unfortunately, Trevor is quickly told by the men at the factory that they have no idea whom Ivan is…there is no one by that name working there.   

Is Ivan real or has Trevor imagined him?  And what of the waitress that Trevor frequently visits?  Why is he so drawn towards her?  And what is the significance of one particular landmark at one specific traffic intersection, which causes Trevor to stop his car amidst traffic?  And what is the importance of those hangman puzzle games he plays?  Why does he frenetically clean his apartment all of the time?  And finally, whose body is in the rolled up area rug that Trevor tries to dispatch of at the beginning of the film? 

I hasting to spoil anymore of the film for you, other than to say that it plays out like Trevor’s delusional nightmare come disturbingly to life.  The narrative builds great momentum and focus for the way it draws viewers into its harrowing and involving story, which is beset with clues, puzzles, and hints here and there, which all culminates at the film’s conclusion where the truth behind Trevor’s past comes to the forefront.  THE MACHINIST definitely has visual and story echoes of recent dark films like FIGHT CLUB and even liberally borrows the fractured narrative tricks and puzzles as found in MEMENTO.  It’s focus on a character beleaguered with traumatizing guilt and despair while dealing with the painful grip of a sleeping disorder reminded me as well of another well-oiled thriller, INSOMNIA.   It would be correct to label THE MACHINIST as derivative, but I think that uses recognizable plot and thematic arcs to craft its own unique and absorbing narrative. 

The overall labyrinthine structure of the film and overall aesthetic look bares the film to repeated viewings.  THE MACHINIST is inundated by clues throughout and part of the compulsive pleasure of watching it is to try to piece together all of them to formulate a larger picture.  Consider clues like Trevor’s last name (Reznik means “butcher” in Czech, which hints an aspect of is past).  Also, Reznik is shown at one point reading Dostoevsky’s THE IDIOT, which has a storyline that deals with an innocent man whom others lure into webs of corruption, which has a very surprising ending.  Later in the film Trevor is riding a “route 666” fun house ride one of its faux movie marquees reads “Crime and Punishment”.  The character of Ivan may have some similarities to a character named Ivan in Dostoevsky’s THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, which concerns a man troubled by guilt that goes insane and has nightmares of the devil (which mirrors Trevor’s plight in more ways than one).  Very discerning viewers will note that the time 1:30 is a constant visual in the film: at the one hour and thirty mark of the film its big secret and plot twist is revealed. 

I appreciated THE MACHINIST’s sheer density with its jigsaw-like story and themes, but the film also benefits from its bravura technical assuredness, which tantalizes viewers with a dark, macabre, and melancholic effectiveness.  Hitchcock, no doubt, would have been proud of how Anderson and his cinematographer, Xavi Gimenez, create a visual palette of decay and despair in the film, not to mention crafting palpable suspense and dread without overindulging in needless gimmicks and too many stylistic tricks.  The look of the film wants to convey the dismembered state of Trevor’s mind, so the way THE MACHINIST is filmed with cold and oppressive shades of blues, grays, and blacks only help to reiterate its main character’s descent into a personal abyss.  I especially loved the way Anderson and company make machinery of Trevor’s place of employment an intimidating character in their own right.  Look at the way they film particular scenes here with a tight, claustrophobic atmosphere, which only helps to create a level of distressful anxiety in viewers that something, at some point, will go terribly wrong.  And…if you listen closely enough…you can hear the piercing and unmistakable cords of the Theremin playing threateningly on the soundtrack, perfectly enunciating the film’s warped sense of morality and Trevor’s fracture mental state and his dislocation from reality. 

Bale, as stated, is a juggernaut freak of nature in the film, but the other performances also deserve honorable mention.  I like how Jennifer Jason Leigh does not playing up to disposable and rudimentary character stereotypes in her role as a lowly prostitute that serves as Trevor’s only real escape from the past and present which haunts him (Leigh also imbues her snarky and sassy role with some much-needed comic edge).  Sanchez-Gijon also brings a level of sweetness and honesty to her tricky role as the waitress that forms an unusual bond (in more ways than one) to Trevor.  And Jason Sharion perhaps has the toughest role to pull off as the enigmatic and mysterious Ivan in the sense that he has to create a plausible figure of creepy antagonism without giving out overt clues too soon to his true place in Trevor’s life. 

THE MACHINIST is a film that I regrettable missed during its initial theatrical release in 2004, but viewing it on DVD later that year and most recently on a splendid Blu-ray transfer I still find myself marveling at how crafty, cunning, and ruthlessly compelling its story remains (it would certainly occupy a high spot on my TEN BEST FILMS of 2004 if I were to amend them now).  What makes the film so memorably chilling and unforgettable is how exemplary it is for creating a sense of mood and atmosphere: it shows how guilt for one man’s actions in the past have unavoidable ramifications for him in the present.  Ultimately, the heart of the film is its portrait of its main-character in the midst of a depression and acute mental crisis where elements of his past have been subverted by him because they are too painful to deal with.  THE MACHINIST does not overly-telegraph its final payoff and keeps viewers implicated in the unknown mysteries of its intricate and trancelike plot.  And, yes, we have Christian Bale, so wrongfully robbed of an Oscar nomination for his landmark, throwing absolute caution to the wind performance that was – and still is – the evocative and hypnotic focal point of THE MACHINIST.  Seeing Bale’s body ravaged by months of intense starvation – all for the sake of art – definitely helps sell the film as a whole other level of profoundly entrenched and frightening Hitchockian thriller.  It still is, five years after its release, one of 2004’s most overlooked diamonds in the rough.

  H O M E