Directed by Brad Anderson. Starring Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, John Sharian, Michael Ironside, Anna Massey. (2004, R, 102 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 26, 2004
Trevor Reznik (Bale) looks like hell. His gaunt frame, sunken eyes, and deathly pallor make him look like a survivor just released from a concentration camp. With his skeletal bones and vertebrae jutting out from beneath his skin, Trevor is as angular and jagged as the letters of his name. He is an industrial worker, who says he hasn’t slept in a year: just the kind of guy that the "do not operate heavy machinery" labels were made for. His bosses think he’s taken to drugs, his co-workers think he’s simply odd, but his prostitute girlfriend Stevie (Leigh, in another of her whore-with-a-heart-of-gold roles) likes him because he doesn’t beat her like some of her other johns and she recognizes his loneliness. "If you were any thinner you wouldn’t exist," she tells him. In what has now become famous film lore, actor Bale (American Psycho) shed 60 lbs. from his already thin frame to play this role, an amount that certainly outranks all the other Hollywood weight gain/loss numbers in terms of an actor’s commitment to the role. Bale achieved the effect he and director Anderson wanted: Reznik is a truly creepy individual. He’s also haunted by certain images and patterns, and the copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot lying on a table in his apartment provides a solid clue that Trevor’s feeling guilty about something. Yet all through the first half of the movie, Anderson skillfully creates an unsettling mood. Despite Trevor’s pathological appearance and his sleepless mind, he seems basically normal: he goes to work every day, has routine heterosexual sex, pays his rent, etc. The film tosses us into a world desaturated of color in which it’s unclear where the lines between sanity and insanity reside. But by the time blood starts oozing from Trevor’s refrigerator somewhere around the movie’s midway mark, it’s clear that this story cannot end well. There’s also the issue of Ivan (Sharian), a large shaved hulk (he looks something like the Apocalypse Now Brando dressed up in The Wild One’s jeans) who diverts Trevor’s attention at work, which causes an accident for which Trevor is responsible. Trouble is, no one at work has ever seen Ivan. By the beginning of the third act, Trevor is flinging himself into oncoming traffic, and we’re still damned if we know why. By the end of the movie, the details of Trevor’s backstory become clear, but the main impression we’re left with is the previous 100 minutes of dread. Anderson definitely has a flair for creating a diffuse sense of fear, paranoia, and mental illness onscreen; his previous film Session 9 also dealt with such themes. However, The Machinist dispenses pretty early on with the is-he-or-isn’t-he questions, and just leaves us to wonder the details and parameters of his mental disturbance. It gives the viewer a queasy sensation, an effect that some will find more impressive than others. The Machinist never gives us the nuts and bolts of mental illness and guilt, just the sight of cooped-up steam escaping from a valve that’s about to blow.