Should I Watch..? The Machinist
What's the big deal?
The Machinist is a psychological thriller film released in 2004 and was written by Scott Kosar whilst he attended a screenwriting course at the UCLA School of Theatre, Film & Television. Produced and shot in Spain, the film stars Christian Bale as an insomniac factory worker who begins to doubt his own sanity after he accidentally causes an industrial accident. The film became almost synonymous with Bale's extreme weight-loss program he put himself through for the part, reducing his weight down to 120 lbs or 54 kg. The film's supporting cast includes Michael Ironside, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Sharian and Aitana Sánchez-Gijon. Although the film only made $8.2 million, the film was highly praised by critics who highlighted Bale's performance and commitment as well as the film's complex narrative and moody atmosphere.
What's it about?
Trevor Reznik has been going through a rough patch. Having suffered from insomnia for the last year, his body is wasting away to the point of emaciation and his appearance and behaviour at work isolates him from his colleagues. After he accidentally causes an accident where his co-worker Miller loses a hand, Trevor blames it on being distracted by another co-worker Ivan despite the fact that nobody at the factory has heard of him and there is no record of an employee called Ivan.
Reznik only seems to find solace with airport waitress Maria who serves him through the night and Stevie, a prostitute who is genuinely worried about him. Haunted by visions and recurring nightmares, Trevor's apartment is soon littered with yellow post-it notes including one with appears to be a game of Hangman. Believing himself to be the victim of a conspiracy, Trevor pursues the truth and starts with the one responsible for the accident - the enigmatic Ivan...
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Release Date (UK)
18th March, 2005
Drama, Psychological, Thriller
What's to like?
It's not often that a film comes along and is able to justify using its influences as well as The Machinist which has echoes of Hitchcock and David Lynch as well as other films like Fight Club (1). Contributing to the film's unsettling atmosphere is Bale whose skeletal frame is almost upsetting to see, especially during scenes when he's moving about because you worry he might break in the process. It's impossible to take your eyes off him throughout the film, although you might want to.
The film's story is also superb and as the conspiracy appears to spread, you wonder how much is real and how much is imaginary. It's a fascinating character study into a diseased and warped mind and the journey is both enthralling and horrifying at the same time. Because you're already questioning everything, the film's big reveal might not be that surprising if you've picked up all the clues but it's extremely poignant and brutal with the truth. I loved the dirty, grubby feel of the film with its innate sense of despair and decay which is underlined by Bale's zombie-like appearance. Compare this to a big-budget chiller like Gothika (2) and the film becomes even more impressive. It's a visually stunning, intelligent and darkly imaginative vision that will capture your attention and not let it go.
- Bale's diet for four months before shooting apparently consisted of water, an apple and a cup of coffee a day and the occasional whiskey. Bale wanted to drop to 99 lbs but the producer refused him, fearing for his safety. He safely regained the weight for his next role - Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins (3).
- Anderson and Kosar were turned down by almost every major studio in America after the screenplay was described as being "too weird".
- Kosar is a massive fan of the band Nine Inch Nails, referencing their lead singer Trent Reznor with this film's lead character. The original screenplay even had lyrics written on the first page. Anderson, however, vetoed their music for the soundtrack.
What's not to like?
The reason I bring up the film's microscopic budget (around $5 million) is because there are moments when this shows - maybe not as much as you'd think because the film is a very well made product. In truth, it doesn't need a massive budget because the screenplay is so good - and a really good screenplay shouldn't need a huge budget. I would also have liked to see a bit more from the supporting cast - Ironside and Leigh are both disappointing and while Sharian and Sánchez-Gijon are better, we simply don't spend as much time with them as we do with what's left of Bale.
Lastly, and I admit that this is more subjective, the film's subject matter and tone make The Machinist a difficult and challenging film to watch. It's not entertaining but it excels at being a great chiller of a film, sending shivers down your spine and making you look over your shoulder more often. It plays with your mind and engages you psychologically instead of emotionally and while some viewers might enjoy the prospect, others will be turned off instead. Their loss, frankly.
Should I watch it?
It won't be for everybody but this is a great example of what's possible with limited resources and a cracking script. Full of imagination, mind games and manipulation, the film really delivers with a quality mystery and satisfying conclusion that will take some time to forget. Yes, Bale's transformation is astonishing but there's more meat to this picture than his bony body. Sit back and treat yourself to a truly unsettling experience.
Great For: thriller lovers, Hitchcock fans, Bale's credentials
Not So Great For: Weight Watchers, anorexics, bulimics, scaredie cats
What else should I watch?
The two films The Machinist feels closest to are the murder mystery thriller Se7en (4) and the psychological drama Fight Club, both directed by David Fincher. Se7en plunges head-first into every film noir cliché going and adds a few more as Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt hunt down a sadistic serial killer obsessed with the Seven Deadly Sins. Pitt pops up again in Fight Club as the unforgettable Tyler Durden who rages against capitalism alongside Edward Norton's bewildered narrator. Both Fight Club and The Machinist deal in half-truths and mixed realities and are well worth tracking down, although Fight Club has much more to offer than just that.
Of course, every thriller released these days aspires to achieve comparisons with Hitchcock but precious few do. The Master of Suspense was a true genius of his craft, able to generate fear and tension from the simplest of set-ups. Films like North By Northwest (5), Vertigo (6) and Psycho (7) are all testament to the great man's deserved reputation and influence and continue to be revered today.