Christian Bale dazzles in the mesmerizing, surreal world of ‘The Machinist’
The Machinist/ 2004/ Paramount Classics, Filmax Entertainment/102 min.
In honor of Christian Bale’s Golden Globe award for best supporting actor in “The Fighter” I thought it would be fun to run a review of a neo noir he starred in several years ago: Brad Anderson’s “The Machinist” (“El Maquinista”) from 2004.
I first saw this film at the Chicago Film Festival. When my date left to grab some popcorn, an earnest, chatty guy sat on the empty chair on my left, and cheerfully announced: “I was just in the lobby and it was hotter than Hades in there.”
Hades? Really? Before I had a chance to answer he continued, “Would you like anything from the concession stand?” So basically he was asking me if I wanted anything from hell. Hmmm, very tempting. There were bound to be people I’d want him to say hello to. I thanked him but declined. Just then my date returned, the lights went dim and, as the chatty guy craned forward, his popcorn flew to the floor. “I’ll be right back,” he mumbled, the cheer drained from his voice. Guess he was destined to make that second trip to Hades.
The exchange was an apt intro to “The Machinist,” which is essentially a waking dream set in hell. As the movie’s tagline asks: “How do you wake up from a nightmare if you’re not asleep?”
Bale gives an amazing performance as machinist Trevor Reznik whose life is mysteriously falling apart. He lives in a spare, gloomy apartment, he hasn’t slept in a year, he rarely eats and, distracted and disoriented, can barely stumble through his daily routine.
Trevor alienates his co-workers and has few friends, other than Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an earthy, matter-of fact prostitute. Stevie would like to toss her other clients and have a real relationship with Trevor but it’s easier said than done, given his delicate mental state.
Not sleeping means he has plenty of time on his hands and, to pass the nighttime hours, he often hangs out at an airport diner. When strange and skeletal Trevor breaks down and eats a slice of pie, it’s served to him by Maria (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), a pretty waitress with a warm laugh who seems to enjoy chatting with him as he noshes. “If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist,” says Maria. Stevie told him the exact same thing.
Then there’s an accident at the plant. A co-worker named Miller (Michael Ironside) loses his arm in a machine and the rest of the guys rightly blame Trevor for the mishap — he failed to keep his eyes on the machine’s controls. Trevor claims his attention was diverted by a stranger at the factory, a malevolently jolly giant named Ivan (John Sharian). Trevor assumes Ivan is a new worker; no one else saw him or knows anything about him.
But Ivan likes Trevor and continues to make special appearances just for him. As memories of his former normal life mingle with twisted visions of reality, other things in Trevor’s life also go awry. He finds a photo that proves one of his co-workers knew Ivan. Sticky notes with partially completed games of Hangman appear on Trevor’s refrigerator. On a date with Maria and her son Nicholas, the boy suffers from a seizure after Trevor takes him on a funhouse ride.
Trevor eventually loses his job, which leaves him even more time to figure out what started his spiral into confusion and fear, perhaps madness. He’s sure someone, ie Ivan, has hatched an evil plot to drive him over the edge. Desperately trying to catch Ivan and get to the bottom of the weirdness, Trevor jumps in front of a car; when he later finds out that the car is actually his own, it pushes him into a full-on state of paranoia, which leads him to turn on Stevie.
It is Ivan whom Trevor must confront, however, and his relentless pursuit ultimately leads him to a dark chapter of his own past that he has unsuccessfully tried to banish. By confronting Ivan, he is in fact confronting himself. Turns out, Trevor did something very bad that got the ball rolling.
Director Anderson isn’t a master storyteller (he can be heavy handed at times) but he creates a compelling, almost mesmerizing, surreal world and builds a mood of quiet menace and anxiety. Scott Kosar’s script, though arguably predictable, had enough twists and humor to hook me. If, like Kosar, you’re a Doestyevsky fan, you may appreciate all the references. And the look of the movie, shot in Spain, with its washed out color as well as dark shadow, is the perfect eerie backdrop to Trevor’s unraveling.
But it’s the superb characters inhabiting this world that made me want to watch this again. From a small role like Anna Massey as Trevor’s nosy landlady to Bale in the lead, each part is nicely cast and very well played.
Sánchez-Gijón, Leigh and Sharian all shine; Bale, who dropped 60 pounds for this movie, sends shivers down your spine.
Even if you’re in a movie theater lobby and it’s hotter than Hades.