Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Machinist

Some movies are more well-known than they are seen.  For years, whenever any article was published that spoke about how Christian Bale won the lead role in Christopher Nolan's Batman series, The Machinist was pointed to as an indication of just how far Bale would go for a role he cared about.  Thanks to an extremely limited theatrical release, though, few people actually watched the movie.  So, how does it stand up?

Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) hasn't slept in a year.  He still works every day, working heavy machinery, but his insomnia has obviously taken a toll.  Aside from an emaciated appearance, Trevor seems to have memory lapses; his apartment is covered in Post-It notes to help him remember.  He doesn't seem to have any real friends, except for a hooker, Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that worries about his weight, and Maria (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), the waitress at the all-night airport cafe that he visits daily.  One day, this abrasive new guy, Ivan (John Sharian), switches shifts and ends up working the same shift as Trevor at work.  While helping a co-worker (Michael Ironside) with a machine, Trevor gets distracted by Ivan gesturing on the other side of the room --- I would be distracted by Ivan, too, since he has a big toe where his thumb should be.  Gross.  Anyway, Trevor's carelessness causes an accident that ends up costing his co-worker an arm.  Trevor tries to place a little blame on Ivan, but nobody's ever heard of him; there is no Ivan at his workplace.  Huh.  That's weird.  It's not all bad for Trevor, though; he starts to see Maria outside of work, even taking her and her son to the carnival.  He and Stevie even talk about making a commitment and getting her a legitimate job.  Every time something seems to be going right for Trevor, though, Ivan pops up.  Stevie has a picture of him in her apartment, showing Ivan and one of Trevor's co-workers out fishing.  What is going on here?  Is this a big conspiracy to mess with Trevor's sleep-deprived mind?  And what is with the game of Hangman on Trevor's fridge that only seems to progress when he's not paying attention?

As I mentioned earlier, the one thing that everyone comments on when discussing The Machinist is Christian Bale's weight loss.  And with good reason.
Bale dropped about 60 pounds to reach a weight of 120, and his appearance is downright disturbing.  He looks gaunt with his clothes on, but the scenes where he is shirtless are just very uncomfortable to watch.  At one point in the film, you get to see a photo of a full-bodied Bale, and the difference between what he was then and is now astonishes.  Bale's performance is more than just a physical transformation, though.  He did a great job portraying the confused and exhausted Reznik.  What impressed me most, though, were the moments when he let his character's temper snap.  I found his anger here more alarming than anything I saw from him in American Psycho.  The rest of the cast is not nearly as good, though.  Jennifer Jason Leigh was okay, as was Michael Ironside.  The bit actors were mostly fine, too, including Anna Massey and Larry Gilliard, Jr.  I was left particularly unimpressed by John Sherian's performance as Ivan.  I understand that his character is not supposed to be likable, but whenever he was on screen, I could feel my distaste for this movie grow.  It's not entirely his fault, since not every actor can pull off a character that is smug, vulgar, and intentionally repulsive, but he didn't do a good job. 

By the way, what was with his toe-thumb?  Yes, I get that the character lost a thumb in a machine accident and had his toe transplanted onto his hand.  I'm asking what the point of that was.  The only purpose I can see in that is that it gives the screenwriter an opportunity to make a few discomforting comments about sexual foreplay.  Frankly, that is not nearly enough of a reason to satisfy me.

The Machinist has one powerful performance, several serviceable ones, and one supporting role that irritated me.  What does that say about director Brad Anderson?  Not as much as you might think, actually.  I generally liked his direction, but it wasn't flawless.  I think he handled Trevor's increasing paranoia well.  The story has a mystery at its core, and you can solve it if you pay attention to some details in the film (or, if you're movie smart, like me), but the clues are subtle and decently clever.  Obviously, Anderson and Bale worked well together, but no other character felt like it had much depth aside from Trevor.  Again, I'm going to point to John Sherian's performance as an indicator that Anderson didn't direct his actors all that well.  Nevertheless, he captured dread and paranoia quite well, and I was pleased with how he set up the film's mystery, so it is a job well done, overall.

I do have one major concern with this movie.  It's the game of Hangman.  The word in Trevor's game has six letters, and at one point, we see that he has "blank-I-L-blank-E-R."  Trevor guesses "Miller," meaning Michael Ironside's character; that doesn't work because there are two L's in "Miller," and it would have come up when the other L did.  Everybody knows how Hangman works, if only because it follows some of the same rules that Wheel of Fortune does.  The fact that Trevor is unaware of this is more than a little odd.  It gets worse near the end of the film.  SPOILER ALERT: When Trevor realizes that his Hangman word is "Killer," everything falls into place in the film, like little puzzle pieces.  And yet, that also ignores the fact that "Killer" also has two L's and, by the rules of Hangman, is clearly not the right word.  Unless, of course, Trevor is playing the game wrong, which is equally dumb.  Man, that pissed me off.

The Machinist is definitely worth a viewing for Bale's performance and his appearance.  The direction is pretty good and this is a nice little movie about paranoia.  It's not great, though.  The lack of a strong supporting cast and memorable dialogue seriously limit the power of this film, and that Hangman problem shows lazy screenwriting.  More than anything, this is a movie that is all about Christian Bale.  If that sounds up your alley, you should give it a chance.


  1. I thought the plot and "mystery" in this were laughably poor. It came out at a time when many of these same "twists" had been well covered. It was like when Pulp Fiction came out and all those horrible retreads soon followed.

  2. I didn't catch the movie when it first came around. What "twist" movies came out around this time? I'm drawing a blank for 2003-2005.

    As for the plot and mystery being poor, I don't totally agree. From a directing standpoint, I think it was handled well. From a screenplay standpoint, I will agree that it was clumsy. The Hangman game was just awful. And yet, while I gathered the gist of the twist, I didn't figure absolutely everything out, so I'll give it a little credit.

    Should a performance outweigh glaring story problems? Maybe, maybe not. In this case, I think the story is decent enough to allow Bale's performance to be viewed without gritting your teeth.