Director: Brad Anderson
Starring: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón
Christian Bale’s 2004 film is one most often noted for the actor’s choice to go so far into character, in order to make the movie the way the director envisioned, that he lost a ton of weight and looked like an anorexic ghoul for the whole thing. He really went all out, and I think that that’s worthy of respect. He’s devoted to his job. Everyone’s got what they’re good at, and all you have in life is the ability to do it and be respected for it by your peers – I think Bale is more than worthy of that respect.
But the film is notable for more than that, such as the directing of horror/thriller master Brad Anderson, who also directed the sublime Session 9 4 years prior. Anderson seems to be channeling Jacob’s Ladder with this, as there are a lot of similarities, but you know what? I welcome it. Jacob’s Ladder is an excellent film, and while at first The Machinist might look like a cheap knock-off, it uses the influences – psychological horror, the surreality, the fact that you never know what’s real – to comment on very real things and talk about an issue just like the original film did a decade prior. This is a film about a man racked with guilt. He cannot sleep and has been losing weight ever since his terrible ordeal (which I won’t spoil here). Far from a shallow brain exercise, this is an emotional and disturbing picture of a man on the edge of himself, starting to crumble.
It builds through discordant, jarring psychological twists even from the beginning, with Bale’s character Trevor immediately thrust into a host of mind bending situations. He meets a man named Ivan who claims to work for his company, but how come no one else has ever heard of him? He finds strange post-it notes on his refrigerator, on his walls. He forms relationships with two women, a prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a waitress at an airport diner (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), both of which become entangled in the film’s morass of plot.
His personality becomes revealed to us through the subtle things. In the beginning of the film he costs a co-worker at his factory an arm when he becomes distracted and accidentally turns on a machine at the wrong time, and that’s the catalyst for the rest of the film’s decadent insanity. His physical and mental decay are linked together through his tragedy, his terrible mistake. Everything slowly starts to fall apart from his jobs to his relationships.
A lot of these kinds of movies turn out as shallow and vapid intellectual exercises with little real human depth, but Anderson’s directing lets the depth shine through all the macabre creepiness and seedy atmosphere. The Machinist is a movie about a long spiral of degradation and guilt, and it’s made relatable by the fact that this kind of thing happens in real life, if not quite to the same extreme extent. The human mind can only live with so much guilt until it breaks.
The power of the film lies in Bale’s performance and the unfurling but clear realization of exactly what happened to make him the way he is. We have to know, and although the film is obscure and odd from its onset, it takes no shame in clearing the clouds by the end, and yet without making the viewer feel stupid. Once we know, the film stops being a guessing game of ‘what’s real, what’s in his head’ and more of a statement on the human conscience and what we have to do to make things right, to achieve even the most base level of peace. Powerful, sad and unnerving, mostly for how long it took for Bale's character to do the right thing.