Title: The Machinist
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Director: Brad Anderson
Screenwriters: Scott Kosar
Starring: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón
A few years ago, Tom Hanks got a lot of attention for going on a starvation diet to play a marooned FedEx executive in Cast Away. He’s got nothing (except a few pounds) on Christian Bale, whose physical transformation in The Machinist is incredible to the point of looking downright painful. What he had to go through, both physically and psychologically, to drop what I’d guess was about 60 pounds of muscle, is just about beyond my imagination. I like eating.
But Bale’s emaciated physique is no hollow stunt. His manic, paranoid performance as the haunted Trevor Reznik — essentially a reversal of his vicious but calmly amused turn in American Psycho — has nuance that would be remarkable with or without weight loss. Watch the way Trevor’s unlikely charm in the first act gradually becomes frightening volatility and, eventually, insanity. He has an intense stare that is somehow both an accusation and a cry for help, and when he gets angry and lashes out, we feel like he is an inch away from crying.
The film itself is a twisty psychological thriller that is motivated by emotion and character rather than trickery or sleight of hand. The plot has a fairly diabolical construction and several revelations up its sleeve, but Brad Anderson’s film isn’t about that — a good thing, too, since the neither the story nor its twists are very exciting in and of themselves. The Big Surprise, in particular, is one I’ve already had occasion to whine about this year, accusing filmmakers of using it as an easy way to produce a cheap shocker.
The difference is that The Machinist covers this familiar ground with elegance, teasing out its twists and turns in a way that seems natural rather than contrived. Even that hoary old chestnut of sticking a crucial late-film scene before the opening credits seems to make sense here, though the clever cutting to eventually produce a surprise still renders it somewhat gimmicky. But more importantly, the ending works on an emotional level; it has significance to the characters and gives the story a new level of genuine depth rather than simply catching us off-guard and cutting to the end credits.
Anderson takes pains to create a creepy quasi-noir atmosphere, though he occasionally (and deliberately) disrupts this with an improbably garish image, such as a severed arm spinning on an industrial machine as it powers down after an accident. The freakish-looking Bale seems to fit right into this world, which is colorless and perpetually dank; the film’s otherworldly mien sort of absorbs the shock of his appearance, incorporating it to create a mood instead of using it for shock value. It’s pretty scary, too, though there isn’t a single scene that qualifies as a “set piece;” there’s never a sense that anyone is merely showing off, though the $5 million film is certainly a technical masterwork.
I know people who resent being tricked at the movies and inevitably look upon “twists” with skepticism. I love having the rug pulled out from under me, and as long as the movies don’t cheat, they can more often than not get a pass if they manage to surprise me. Not only does The Machinist play fair, but its surprises matter. They’re more than just nifty; they emerge from the story and seamlessly weave back into it.