by Kristi Mitsuda
Dir. Brad Anderson, U.S., Paramount Classics
Death is present, literally, and tonally, from the first frames of The Machinist, subtly emanating from the washed-out darkness of the fluorescent-lit palette of blues, greens, and grays, which lends a murky, underwater complexion to the film's industrial wasteland setting. It's most blatantly manifest in the form of actor Christian Bale himself, as Trevor Reznik, a lathe operator at a company blandly dubbed National Machine, whose diminished frame is so skeletal as to summon images of concentration camp victims. By dwelling on his emaciated figure, almost caressing the character's body with the camera, Brad Anderson makes the simple act of watching The Machinist difficult at times. Many film writers can't seem to get beyond Bale's incredible 63-pound weight loss and, distracted by this single detail, some quick to label it mere attention-seeking ploy and others nearly falling over themselves heralding the potential for a flip-side of the Charlize Theron weight-gain Oscar, miss out on a movie which deserves more than this superficial notoriety.
The Machinist beautifully conjures the trippy and surreal world that insomnia creates. In an early scene, Trevor sits with a cup of coffee in what appears a rather Lynchian retro-Fifties diner, which oddly turns out to be an airport lounge. He chats easily, in flirtatious rapport with his regular waitress, Maria (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), and though you can't quite put your finger on it-maybe it's that the walls are too stark or because Bale's gaunt pastiness takes on a ghoulish aspect under the harsh lighting-there's a bizarre timbre to the interaction that places it in a dreamlike realm. Compounding this sensation, Maria declares to Trevor as she hands him a piece of pie on the house, “If you were any thinner, you wouldn't exist,” words spoken earlier, and verbatim by Stevie, a prostitute played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Placing such a scene so early on makes evident that Anderson has no intention of tricking the audience into believing that Trevor's experience is the full, concrete truth. His perspective arises from year-long insomnia, and Anderson immediately serves up a healthy portion of skepticism. We're meant to rely mostly upon visual cues in order to interpret this perplexing amalgamation of the objective and subjective. The director makes that rarest of moves in American film-he rewards the attentive viewer rather than catering to the expectations of the normally spoon-fed-and it's enthralling. Throughout The Machinist, he encourages the spectator to ask a series of ever-evolving questions: To what extent is Trevor delusional? Can anything be connected to an empirical reality? When he semi-nods off to sleep and then comes to, is he awake or dreaming? Does the ominous click of the car cigarette lighter signal some new state of consciousness? Is he repeating one day over and over? Does any of this have something to do with his father who left him and his mother when he was a child? Why the constant return to Mother's Day? Is this one man's version of hell?
Toying with memory and fantasy, The Machinist cites movies ranging from Insomnia (for obvious reasons) to Memento (post-it notes strewn everywhere) to Jacob's Ladder (with its collision of the external and internal). The stars themselves become nostalgic indicators. Bale, one of the most underappreciated of actors, in his thin paleness, a smattering of dark hair on his head, and a stilted way of carrying his body, suggests a latter-day Anthony Perkins. And Leigh (mere coincidence that her last name is identical to Psycho 's blond leading lady's?), heartbreaking as the hooker with a heart of gold who treats Trevor like an infrequent lover she'd like to see more often rather than as a client, plays a role which hearkens back to her earlier career ( Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Last Exit to Brooklyn ) where her sexuality was often overtly mobilized. What sets this film apart from the others it supposedly imitates is that the audience in The Machinist is never meant to completely buy into the diversions or decoys. This is most notably expressed via Trevor's alter-ego, Ivan (John Sharian), a paraphrasing of Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden from Fight Club (as well as an echo of Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz). Revealing this fact comes as no spoiler given that Ivan's inexplicably sinister nature marks him as a projection of Trevor's psyche as soon as he's introduced. Unlike Durden, Ivan is presented as so hyperbolically macabre, his teeth so white, his red car the one spot of color in a sea of muted tones, that he becomes readily apparent as a figment of Trevor's imagination. Anderson even quotes his own work extensively within The Machinist , which, in its thematic emphasis on repressed memories and penchant for ellipses, comes off as a more sophisticated reworking of his previous movie, Session 9 (both a far cry from the whimsy of his romantic comedies, Next Stop, Wonderland and Happy Accidents , and proof that Anderson is just as capable of creating disturbing milieux as he is pleasant ones).
At first the rationale behind so many cinematic allusions is bewildering. It appears deliberate, yet too explicit to be simply homage, and too clever to be just another case of a cinephile's postmodernist appropriation. The truth is that these referents generate an unexpected level of déjà vu. Within The Machinist, this construct works on many levels, as everywhere Trevor turns, he sees or hears details which echo back other meanings and past incidents which hint at the roots of his self-destructive insomnia. Visually and aurally, the movie invokes others and communicates that disorienting recognition of dimly-remembered repetitions. Cluttering the current location with the identifiable ghosts of films past, Anderson brilliantly harnesses their reverberating associations and thus promotes a more dimensional encounter with déjà vu by exploiting diegetic as well as inter-cinematic space. He channels this energy towards the intensification of a ubiquitous, paranoid, self-conscious awareness akin to being in a carnival funhouse surrounded by distorting mirrors.
More shrewd and shocking than if it had u-turned in some last-minute, manufactured direction (as par for the course with most suspense films these days), there are no grand reveals to be had here. Even the ultimate unraveling isn't climactic so much as a quiet culmination towards a brief moment of clarity preceding swift acknowledgment. The Machinist's great “gotcha” is that it gently and hypnotically goes where it's been headed all along. The mistake some may make is in thinking that it wants to pull a rabbit out of its hat at the end and because it doesn't, that it fails. Already, the cries of some critics dismissing the movie as derivate fodder can be heard. This is less a thriller than a psychological study, but because of the blinders of generic anticipation, many won't see that its director thinks far beyond those narrow parameters.