Looking back at The Machinist

Christian Bale may be most famous for playing Batman these days, but 2004’s The Machinist contains one of his best performances

“A little guilt goes a long way,” says protagonist Trevor Reznik in Brad Anderson’s 2004 thriller, The Machinist, which uses guilt as its thematic bedrock. Shot for just $5 million, this is a movie which pulls in influences from all over the place – 50s horror, classic Hitchcock, David Lynch, plus a dash of Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder – to create something quite unique, and genuinely disturbing.

Showing typical commitment to his craft, Christian Bale famously spent four months on a diet of apples, tuna and black coffee to lose weight for the role of Trevor Reznik, a factory worker driven to the brink of madness by chronic insomnia. That weight loss may be the aspect of the film that gains the most attention, but it’s Bale’s desperate performance – all wide eyes and facial tics – that drives the movie, not the lack of meat on his bones.

The Machinist unfolds like a traditional mystery thriller, albeit one where the culprit – if there is one at all – is seldom clear. Reznik clearly has secrets to hide, but what are they? Why hasn’t he slept in almost a year? Whose body is he seen wrapping in a carpet and then dumping in the sea at the very start of the movie? And who’s leaving enigmatic messages on little post-it notes on his fridge?

Gradually, Reznik begins to unravel. Following an industrial accident at his workplace, in which his distracted state results in co-worker Miller (Michael Ironside) losing his arm, Reznik begins to distrust the rest of the factory’s workers. There’s a strange new chap at the factory, too, named Ivan (John Sharian). Is he a cop? Does he even exist?

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As Reznik’s paranoia builds, he finds companionship in two women. The first is Marie (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) an ethereally pretty waitress at the airport café Reznik frequents when he can’t sleep. The second is Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a prostitute who doubles as Reznik’s bedroom psychoanalyst. But as an unseen hand continues to write little clues on post-it notes, leaving them stuck to the fridge, which bleeds, Lynch-like in Reznick’s flat, he begins to suspect that everyone may be conspiring against him for some reason.

Possibly based in California, but shot entirely in Spain, The Machinist takes a simple premise and makes it into a memorable, cinematically literate waking nightmare. It’s full of literary references, too – there are brief nods to Dostoevsky and Kafka, which are reflected in the themes and characters. The Machinist has the same questioning, paranoid quality as the latter author’s The Trial, and there’s a suggestion of Dante’s Divine Comedy in Reznik’s purgatory-like existence.

In the hands of a less imaginative, interesting director, the movie would have fallen apart; but thanks to Brad Anderson’s eerie use of locations, recurring images and jarring edits, Xavi Gimenez’s stylish, bleak cinematography and Roque Banos’ theremin-soaked soundtrack, The Machinist truly sticks in the mind.

Anderson, like the enigmatic character who leaves the hangman games stuck to Reznik’s fridge, enjoys teasing the viewer, piling tantalising question upon question. The clues all fit together like coloured pieces in a mosaic: the airport diner clock permanently stuck at one thirty; the brief flashes of a pale concrete water tower; the repeated glimpses of tunnels leading left and right.

There are references to everything from Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls to Hitchcock’s Psycho, and a general sense of sickly unease that recalls David Lynch’s Lost Highway. The mysterious Ivan – a seedy individual with toes for fingers and the voice of Robert Mitchum – is a fearsome character you’ll come to dread.

From start to finish, The Machinist is a movie that looks incomparably ill – Reznik is almost feral in his fear of what may or may not be occurring around him, and Christian Bale’s borderline grotesque performance is among his very best. Losing lots of weight may sound like a cheap way of attempting to earn plaudits, but his emaciated appearance fits perfectly with the film’s stark, grubby aesthetic. Reznik is an empty man, hollowed out by festering guilt, and this reflects back on the dead, filthy sheen on everything around him.

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The Machinist is, quite simply, the kind of movie that Hollywood could not make. From its opening scenes of Reznik shuffling like a re-animated skeleton in his apartment, to its final, gloomy revelation, this is a disturbing, difficult film.

Audiences and distributors seemed to find The Machinist difficult, too, judging by its low box office receipts – it was only in the years after the film’s 2004 release that the movie’s popularity has begun to grow, and it’s deservedly regarded as something of a cult masterpiece. Brad Anderson went on to direct such genre movies such as Vanishing On 7th Street and Transsiberian, bit thus far, he hasn’t broken through into the mainstream as Christopher Nolan did after Memento – another thriller with a guilty protagonist at its centre. Instead, he’s become a familiar credit on TV, having directed several episodes of such hit shows as Fringe, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, The Shield, The Killing and Person Of Interest. Television, it seems, is a more comfortable home, these days, for disturbing adult drama than cinema.

There’ll be some who’ll guess The Machinist’s final-act twist long before it comes, but by the time it arrives, the twist barely matters – Anderson’s film may be a lengthy reworking of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Telltale Heart, but its repeated use of sound and images to disturb and startle are what truly bring it to life. This is a movie not about plot, but mood.

Like the ghost train ride Reznik foolishly takes in one pivotal sequence, The Machinist is about the journey rather than the destination. And although what we learn about Reznik at the conclusion is disturbing, we can at least take comfort in the fact that, ultimately, he chooses the path that leads to redemption.

“I just want to sleep”, he says, as he’s led to his cell. Let’s hope he sleeps easier than most of us did after watching this uniquely bleak movie.

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