Judge Russell Engebretson says this review begins on the other side of despair.
Our review of The Machinist (Blu-Ray), published May 19th, 2009, is also available.
The more he learns, the less he wants to know.
From the film's start, it's clear that whippet-thin Trevor Reznick (Christian Bale, Equilibrium) is a man burdened with occultic knowledge of some terrible event. Directed with deft, surgeon-like grace by Brad Anderson, The Machinist depicts Reznick's ascent from madness to remembrance with the precision of a nightmarish autopsy.
Facts of the Case
The movie begins with a night shot of Reznick in his apartment rolling a body into a throw rug. He drives to a desolate, apparently abandoned manufacturing site and attempts to dump the body into a rubble-strewn pit of water, but his ghoulish undertaking is interrupted by someone (possibly a night watchman) who shines a light into Reznick's eyes and asks, "Who are you?" The scene cuts away to Reznick back in his apartment washing his hands with powdered bleach and scalding tap water; his pale, bruised face and skeletal torso hovering in the mirror. The camera dollies back to reveal a large flashlight in the foreground, similar to what a security guard might carry on his nightly rounds. Reznick, gazing into the mirror, espies a small note affixed to the wall and turns slowly around with a look of puzzlement that turns into frightened astonishment. Hand printed on the note is the phrase: WHO ARE YOU?
The next scene opens with a flashback shot of Trevor Reznick in bed with Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh, eXistenZ), a prostitute who seems to have a romantic attachment to him. She informs him that he still has 30 minutes left, and offers to fry him an egg as a late-night snack. Trevor politely declines and leaves a hundred dollar bill on an end table as he leaves. A scene of him at his workplace—a busy machine shop—is followed by an interlude at an airport restaurant where he indulges in pleasant, yet oddly stilted, conversation with the waitress (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, A Walk in the Clouds). Wherever Reznick appears, things seem a bit off-kilter, and the sideways tilt becomes more pronounced as the movie unreels.
There is no doubt that Trevor Reznick is a man with serious problems: He claims not to have slept in a year, yet spends his nights reading fat Russian novels. In the wee hours of the morning he uses a toothbrush and bleach to meticulously clean the grout between the bathroom floor tiles. At his daytime job he has ominous conversations with a sinister welder whom none of his co-workers has ever seen, and he finds cryptic notes in his apartment in the form of handwritten hangman games. Despite all the weirdness, as Reznick mentally unravels, the reason for his bizarre behavior becomes clearer. The big reveal at the movie's end answers all questions and neatly ties up the plot with a shiny black bow.
Christian Bale—who stands six feet two inches tall—shed 63 pounds for his role as Trevor Reznick, which brought him down to an ultra-scrawny 110 pounds. It's especially shocking to see his vanishingly thin figure after watching him in the role of a buff yuppie serial killer in American Psycho. Bale could be a model for the cartoon guy in the Charles Atlas comic book ads who is tormented by the sand-kicking bully. Beyond his startling physical transformation, Christian Bale delivers an understated, tour-de-force performance. His fearful confusion is palpable, and only accentuated by his few sad attempts to put on a cheerful face. Bale has undertaken several eccentric roles, and this one is his strangest yet, but co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh is no slouch in the peculiar-role department, either. Her wonderful performance in the vastly underrated eXistenZ springs to mind, but her character in The Machinist is not at all strange. In fact, her role as a divorcée-turned-hooker may be her most naturalistic performance, and she is a perfect foil for the mental basket case portrayed by Bale. She brings a small degree of comfort to the tortured Reznick, and skillfully turns the cliché of hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold into a rounded, believable person. In addition to the major players, there are numerous standout actors in the smaller roles.
Most of the minor parts are played by non-American actors. Although The Machinist is supposed to take place in a large, unnamed American city, it was filmed in and around Barcelona, Spain. The director found Spanish actors who could speak English (and a few British actors able to credibly mimic an American accent) to play the bit parts and small roles. I would not have known better if director Anderson had not discussed it in the audio commentary.
Regarding the commentary, I wish the director had tarried a little longer and provided more in-depth asides here and there. For example, at one point early in the movie, Reznick almost falls asleep while reading Dostoevsky's The Idiot. Was Crime and Punishment deemed too obvious a reference to his situation, or is Reznick being slyly compared to Prince Myshkin, or none of the above? It would have been enjoyable to hear a bit more about a few of those visual allusions sprinkled about in the film. Though often illuminating, Anderson's discussion is sometimes redundant, just a verbal recap of what we are seeing on the screen, but I would still score it as an above-average commentary.
As the director mentions in the commentary, there is very little fill lighting—portions of characters' faces are often completely black. Inky shadows throughout most of the scenes are the norm. The machine shop and airport restaurant are bathed in sterile fluorescent lighting, and the high contrast cinematography in tandem with the cool fluorescent light creates a stark, foreboding atmosphere. Colors are nearly drained away, portraying a chiaroscuro cinematic landscape that reflects the sad, paranoid thought processes of Reznick's mind. The DVD transfer captures the challenging lighting setup with wonderful fidelity, and I didn't spot any compression artifacts, other than some very slight edge enhancement. Between picture and audio, it's almost a reference quality disc.
The musical score by Roque Baños insinuates itself into the background with creepy, undulating oboe tones and eerie Theremin wailing that would be right at home in a Hammer horror film from the sixties (and I mean that to be a compliment). The soundtrack delivers a sonic wallop when it is needed, as in the horrific industrial accident sequence, but works equally as well in the quieter, dialogue-driven portions of the show. From a whisper to a scream, the Dolby 5.1 surround is clear and balanced.
Other extras include eight deleted scenes (which were enjoyable to watch, but seemed to be wise cuts for the most part) and a 25-minute making-of featurette. The well-put-together short feature contains comments from the director, script-writer, actors, and even producers. One informative sequence shows how the Barcelona sets were made over to take on the appearance of an American city, and another informs us that Bale refused to wear rubber boots as he ran through raw human waste in the Barcelona sewer system. Now there is an actor who truly suffered for his art.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I can't finish the review without nitpicking at a few things I took minor issue with, so here goes. Firstly, there are a tiny number of people at one end of a bell curve's tail (statistically speaking) who can wake up rested with only an hour or two of sleep in a 24-hour period, but an average person cannot survive a month—certainly not a year—without sleep. One might argue that the lack of sleep is only another of Reznick's delusions, and that he is actually nodding off at times; however, the script seems to imply otherwise, which pushes the story further into the realm of melodrama than I found comfortable. Secondly, for all the script's originality, it is a permutation of the hoary detective/film noir convention of the protagonist who has amnesia and spends most of the film trying to regain his memories. I have to admit that the idea still works to great effect in films as recent as Memento and The Bourne Identity, so perhaps there is a reason why the creaky old plot device is still a popular mainstay of novelists and scriptwriters. Lastly, I couldn't help but compare this movie to Cronenberg's masterful Spider, with Ralph Fiennes playing a schizophrenic consumed by remorse over an unspecified childhood tragedy. The revelation in Spider is ambiguous, and ultimately more frightening than this film's denouement. The aim of The Machinist is to display remorse in a character who is not insane, only delusional. The Machinist is a morality tale, whereas Spider is a creepy, distorted view of the world as seen through the eyes of a madman. Despite the differences, the films are close enough in tone to force a comparison, and Spider is the superior film. That is only a minor quibble, though, as The Machinist does a fine job of driving home its grim point (I'm being purposely vague about the story so as not to give away the plot twist).
I liked The Machinist, but if you're looking for family entertainment, or friendly popcorn fare, this film is not for you. More than anything else, this movie is a haunting study of personal moral guilt, a subject that has become almost passé in 21st century America, land of the righteous and the guilt-free. I'd say enjoyment of The Machinist is directly proportional to the viewer's existentialist outlook (or lack thereof). Fans of Sartre may find it nauseatingly appealing—or not. You be the judge.
The Machinist is acquitted, but it depressed the hell out of judge and jury.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Brad Anderson
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