Reviewed by Ben Walters
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.
An American city, the present. Trevor (Christian Bale), a highly strung, painfully thin young man, prepares to dump a body outside an industrial building. Flashing back, we learn that Trevor hasn't slept for a year and works as a machinist at an auto factory. He is friendly with prostitute Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and flirts with Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), a waitress at an airport café he frequents. At work, charismatic new co-worker Ivan (John Sharian) seems to predict an actual accident in which Trevor causes another colleague, Miller (Michael Ironside), to lose an arm.
When his colleagues turn against him, Trevor pursues Ivan, suspecting a conspiracy between him and Reynolds - the worker Ivan supposedly replaced - after finding a photo of them on a fishing trip. A mother's day outing with Marie and her young son Nicholas (Matthew Romero) is marred by a ghost train which prompts Nicholas to have an epileptic fit. On a visit to the factory, Miller offers no hard feelings but Trevor holds him responsible for a subsequent accident in which he nearly loses his own arm. Meanwhile blood is leaking from Trevor's fridge.
Trevor confronts Miller then follows Ivan's Firebird. Convinced of a plot against him, he walks in front of another car and goes to the police, citing Ivan's registration number; the Firebird turns out to be Trevor's own car, which he reported written off a year earlier. Fleeing the police, he runs to Stevie but, suspecting her involvement in the conspiracy, grows abusive. Trevor finds no trace of Marie at the airport, then follows Ivan and Nicholas back to his apartment, where he kills Ivan and finds his fridge full of rotting fish from a trip Trevor himself took with Reynolds. Trevor takes Ivan's body to the factory but it vanishes before he can dump it. Following a confrontation with Ivan - now, we realise, a figment of his guilty conscience - Trevor recalls killing Nicholas in a hit-and-run a year earlier. He turns himself in to the police and sleeps in the cell.
As American Psycho's Patrick Bateman, Christian Bale went to some pains to write the character's vanity on his body, his buff physique the outer show of a murderously obsessive superficiality. He has effected an even greater transformation for The Machinist, in which emaciated long-term insomniac and heavy machinery operative Trevor Reznik's jutting vertebrae and xylophone ribcage are the emblems of a sleepless, foodless penitence for sins beyond his conscious apprehension (an American Neurotic?). When, early on, we see Trevor stretched out on a bed he could pass for a victim on the rack, a concentration camp survivor, even - were he not receiving a blow job at the time - the central figure of a pietà. Elsewhere he looks like a fugitive from a Cronenberg or Alien movie; when he reads Kafka you wonder if he might not in fact be transforming into a gigantic insect. An eventual glimpse of Trevor with flesh on his cheeks, under his chin, shocks.
Bale's performance has the emotional weight to substantiate this body-art spectacle, ranging from prickly self-righteousness through panicked self-doubt to morbid self-pity as this least outward-looking of characters negotiates conscience-pricking visitations ranging from the banal (a mysterious game of hangman on his fridge) to the nightmarish. The film is at its most compelling when it leaves him alone with his demons. The screenplay (by Scott Kosar, who wrote the Texas Chain Saw Massacre remake) struggles to animate supporting characters such as Jennifer Jason Leigh's tart with a heart or Aitana Sánchez-Gijón's beatific working mom Marie, the Madonna to Leigh's whore. The dialogue rings tinny on the few occasions when exchanges are allowed to run on. Director Brad Anderson - whose previous work includes the asylum-set horror Session 9 - more successfully cultivates a morose atmosphere through a drab palette of washed-out industrial greys and blacks. The sense of agonised torpor is occasionally lightened by gallows humour or electrified by an accident at the machine shop, a genuinely disturbing ghost train sequence or the crimson flash of the Pontiac Firebird driven by Trevor's sinister co-worker Ivan.
The red-for-danger signal is of course familiar from the likes of Don't Look Now and Schindler's List. Indeed The Machinist is suffused with more or less explicit filmic references: the driving motif and Herrmannesque score recall Psycho and Trevor's growing paranoia seems indebted to The Shining and the Polanski of Repulsion and The Tenant, while fans of Memento, The Usual Suspects and Fight Club will appreciate the tricksy intertwining of narrative structure and the hero's interiority. Given the crucial question of how much of the mise en scène originates in Trevor's paranoid imagination, it's tempting to surmise that he's simply watched too many films: John Sharian's Ivan, for instance, pays tribute to Brando, conflating the poise and costume of the Wild One with Kurtz's disconcerting superiority. Yet when the shock turnabout is revealed it feels anticlimactic, too neatly pushing the story further inwards and suggesting that the film's derivative qualities arise from its makers as much as its lead character.
- Brad Anderson
- Julio Fernández
- Written by
- Scott Kosar
- Director of Photography
- Xavi Giménez
- Luis de La Madrid
- Production Designer
- Alain Bainée
- Roque Baños