Published Nov 01, 2004The physically unsettling presence of Christian Bale is the most immediately visceral element of this psychological thriller from Brad Anderson (Next Stop Wonderland, Session 9). Bale, known for disappearing into roles like American Psycho, and next due to step into Batman guise for Christopher Nolan, did the most method thing actors do for a demanding role he radically altered his body. But unlike, say, Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Bale's performance isn't a showcase of his medically-supervised commitment to his "craft," his is a devouring of a man's soul sucked from within by a vacuum of insomnia, guilt and paranoid hallucinations.
The six-foot-two Bale starved himself down to 118 pounds for the role of Trevor Reznik, a machine shop worker whose severe insomnia has kept him awake for a year. His whole world has become a sickly grey in the machine shop, in his apartment, in his broken-down truck. Even the city seems strangely otherworldly, like an urban centre in an Orwellian parallel universe. But despite this dreary existence, Reznik finds his little pleasures in his favourite hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) or coffee shop waitress (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon). But his grasp on reality is starting to slip and his paranoid tendencies give way to obsessive-compulsive ones: he scrubs his floors and his hands with bleach, he leaves post-it reminders to himself that seem strange and unfamiliar later, and he sleepwalks through his job at least until a horrible accident snaps him back to attention.
What's particularly effective about The Machinist other than the can't-turn-away watch-ability of Bale's immersion into Reznik is the complete lack of distinction between what is real, what might be real and what definitely is not. The workplace accident, for example, seems so much like a typical horror-movie trope that something horrible might happen, but in fact was just a hallucination that you almost don't believe it's actually happening. And neither does Reznik. So much of his insomniac life has taken on a vaguely surreal tint that even a bloody slap of reality doesn't jar him much. It does jar us though.
Brad Anderson, working from a script by Scott Kosar (whose only other work is adapting remakes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the upcoming Amityville Horror), brings us Trevor Reznik's sur-reality and lets Bale do the rest. The fact that Reznik's life unfolds as a psychologically taut mystery has less to do with the "answers" and more to do with the process, a lesson Anderson has learned well from one of the inspirations for The Machinist, Alfred Hitchcock. It's a lesson that many filmmakers of revelation cinema (yes you, Mr. Shyamalan) need to take from the master. (Paramount Classics)