The Machinist

Often spellbinding view of a man unraveling - a credit to Christian Bale and all concerned.

Released in 2004, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 22 Mar 2005 by Scott Morris
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Ahhh, Christian Bale. We can typically depend upon him to appear in interesting movies, if not necessarily the most mass market outings. Before he makes an assault on the mainstream in the forthcoming Batman Begins, we have the small matter of The Machinist to contend with. Oddly, despite having a largely North American cast and being set in North America featuring a grand total of no Spanish dialogue in it, the Oracle informs me that formally this is a Spanish film called El Maquinista. Thus, something new is learnt.

What dark little number The Machinist is. Trevor Reznik (Bale) hasn't slept for a year. Understandably, he's a little tired. Working as a machinist in a grim factory, life seems somewhat repetitive. Slice of pie and banter with friendly waitress Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) at the airport cafe, occasional visit to friendly local hooker Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for, well, exactly what you'd expect, another sleepless night, back to the factory. A man of few words, and those he deems fit to say seem all the more substantive for it.

Reznik's skies begin to darken around the same time he meets an imposing new colleague, Ivan (John Sharian). An industrial accident which Trev is at least slightly responsible for sees his colleague Miller (Michael Ironside) lose an arm. By 'lose' we mean 'has it ripped off by harsh, unforgiving machinery', not 'I seem to have misplaced my arm, perhaps I left it in the boot of the car'. This sees his workmates question Reznik's already sketchy character further, especially when he claims the incident was due to Ivan distracting him. Thing of it is, there's no guy named Ivan on the company payroll.

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Reznik heads off on a conspiracy theory laden, ever decreasing spiral, straining relationships and his own already fragile health. Satisfyingly, there's never really any question that the legions than Reznik imagines to be after him are any more than that, imaginary. The presentation of the piece never implies that the incredible is actually happening, a giant leap forward from recent insults to our intelligence ala Basic. This leaves us free to try and guess where Trevor's decline is taking him and what pushed him down that path in the first place, a far more gratifying endeavour that also has us feeling a little more sympathetic to the poor guy's suffering.

While the Fight Club comparisons are inevitable and mostly justified, The Machinist plays a lot more like Vincenzo Natali's Cypher. The dreamlike state of the early going in Cypher providing the companion piece for the waking nightmares that Reznik experiences. The bleak, industrial settings and run down apartments could have been lifted from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and contrast with the sterile airport environs in a film where light and shade are as essential a supporting character as the actors. Moody and Noir-esque, the cinematography is a work of brutish beauty; harsh and unforgiving yet oddly attractive.

We can't really go much further without mentioning the most obvious talking point of the film - Bale's near skeletal appearance. A testament to how much he believed in the strength of the film, he slimmed to a frankly dangerous 120 pounds to give the necessary harrowing fragility of Reznik. A testament to Bale's dedication as an actor, he wanted to lose even more weight. This was vetoed, presumably as Bale would then only have existed in two dimensions had he gone through with it. Fears of this perhaps coming across as something of a gimmick can be assuaged, the shock of Bale's physical sacrifice quickly segueing into concern for the wellbeing of the character he's playing.

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He has solid support to play against, particularly John Sharian as his seeming nemesis Ivan. He's certainly one big, threatening looking chappie but the real menace comes from an oddly laid back sense of danger he exudes. Michael Ironside is yet another favourite around these parts, and while he isn't stretched as much as his character's arm is it's nonetheless another eminently watchable appearance from him. The under-different-circumstances love interests of Marie and Stevie end up seeming shallower than the film deserves, the latter in particular heading dangerously towards 'tart with a heart' clich?sville. It's forgivable given later events, especially given that many of the important bits of the film are happening to Reznik on his tod rather than in company.

Brad Anderson's direction is assured and confident; writer Scott Kosar's script practically swaggers. It shows a commendable courage and respect for the audience to actually think the film through before asking us to commit to any of the last minute swerves, plot holes and general irritation that can infest films of this ilk (again, Basic, I'm looking at you. Something you want to share with the class, Identity? No? Settle down, then). This gets it right on so many turns where it could have gone wrong, and that counts for a lot.

As a narrative this film is perhaps only decent, as a mood piece it's excellent. As an example of Bale's devotion to his craft it's exemplary. Of course, by its very nature this film is a little strange and will not be to everyone's tastes, but if you're not adverse to heading out into leftfield every now and again The Machinist provides great rewards. A compelling and original slice of filmmaking, and we don't get to say that too often in these days.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Brad Anderson
Cast list:
Christian Bale (Trevor Reznik)
Jennifer Jason Leigh (Stevie)
Aitana Sánchez-Gijón (Marie)
John Sharian (Ivan)
Michael Ironside (Miller)