The Machinist

on October 22, 2004 by Annlee Ellingson
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Much is made when an actor, particularly an attractive one, radically changes his or her appearance for a role. Charlize Theron packed on 30 pounds, bit into prosthetic teeth and ravaged her blonde locks to transform into serial killer Aileen Wuornos--and she won an Oscar. The prevailing wisecrack is that movie stars have to uglify themselves to be taken seriously. Perhaps there's some truth to this argument. Certainly in the case of "The Machinist," Christian Bale undergoes a metamorphosis that demonstrates an unrivalled dedication to his craft.

Trevor Reznik (Bale) is dying of insomnia. He hasn't slept in a year, and his fatigue has led to a shocking degeneration of his physical and mental health. Both his call-girl girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the waitress (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) at the airport diner he frequents tell him, "If you were any thinner, you wouldn't exist." He steps on the scale often and keeps tabs on his deteriorating weight on a series of yellow Post-it notes: 121 pounds and, by the end of the film, 99. Trevor isn't just thin--he's emaciated, his gaunt facial features underscoring the torment of a man who lives in fear, his grotesque body an outward manifestation of the tortured soul within. Although screenwriter Scott Alan Kosar fully expected the use of CGI or baggy clothes to suggest his character's weight loss, the horrifying reality of this man's condition would not have been achieved with the same punch-to-the-gut intensity without Bale's 63-pound sacrifice.

Skeptical of his appearance, Trevor's coworkers at a machine shop turn on him when he's involved in an accident that costs a man his arm. Plagued with guilt over the incident, Trevor's shame devolves into suspicion, then paranoia, when it appears his colleagues are conspiring to have him fired--or worse. He finds cryptic hangman drawings on Post-it notes in his apartment and is told that a mysterious coworker who distracted him during the accident doesn't even exist. Consumed by a guilty conscience for a crime he's uncertain--or even unaware--that he committed, Trevor investigates these mysteries to determine whether they're part of a plot to drive him mad or fatigue robbing him of reason.

Bale's brilliance in the role lies not only in the fact that he starved himself for months but that he fully inhabits this wasted, paranoid man. At the peak of his desperation, he throws his body in front of a car (for non-suicidal reasons too complex to go into here). Bloody and bruised and at the end of his rope, he lopes through the city streets with the police in pursuit--a monstrosity.

There are echoes of helmer Brad Anderson's two previous films in "The Machinist"--the horror of "Session 9" blended with the questionable reality of "Happy Accidents." And like last year's "Northfork"--also distributed by Paramount Classics--"The Machinist," atmospherically photographed in desaturated blue and green hues, is uniquely cinematic in that the visual cues to this mystery that's occurring largely in Trevor's mind accumulate and gradually reveal themselves as crucial pieces of the puzzle.

A fellow critic, met while shivering in line for a Sundance screening, posited that there are films that are short stories, there are films that are novels, and then there are films that are films. (What else does one talk about at a film festival than film?) "The Machinist" falls definitively into the latter category, drawing on artistic influences as diverse as Kafka and Dostoevski, Hitchcock and Polanski, "Nosferatu" and "Dr. Caligari." An existential horror film that's as intellectually stimulating as it is gripping, "The Machinist" converges to an unexpected yet inevitable conclusion to culminate in the gratifying experience cinema should be. Starring Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, John Sharian, Michael Ironside and Larry Gilliard. Directed by Brad Anderson. Written by Scott Alan Kosar. Produced by Julia Fernandez. A Paramount Classics release. Psychological thriller. Rated R for violence and disturbing images, sexuality and language. Running time: 98 min.

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