The Machinist Blends Dostoevsky and Suspense

Directed by: Brad Anderson, Runtime: 101 minutes
Grade: B+

Brad Anderson's Session 9 is an underappreciated slice of psychological horror, something of a ghost story teething with thrilling ambiance and unsettling performances from all involved. It's only natural that The Machinist, his follow-up film, could be something of a success within the mystery genre, taking to heart the marks and fumbles learned from his time in the abandoned, asbestos-coated asylum. But this rattling tour de force more than satisfies expectations; Anderson finds this unfathomable balance between a mind-rattling premise and Christian Bale's now-infamous visage of an emaciated man haunted by an unknown secret, transforming it into a slow-burning mind job fiendishly successful at luring us into a web of psychological torment.

Easily the strongest work that penman Scott Kosar (screenwriter of the Texas Chainsaw and Amityville Horror remakes) has scribed to date, The Machinist tells Trevor's story, a man who hasn't significantly slept for prolonged periods of time in well over a year. He goes to work at a mechanics plant, writes himself oft-forgotten reminders to pay bills or go to the store for commonplace stuffs like cleaning supplies, and frequently patrons a good-natured call girl (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and an airport pie-and-coffee waitress (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) for scant amounts of socialization. Sleeplessness is causing him to rapidly lose weight, watching the number value sink by way of Post-its above his scale down from the 130s to the 120s, and lower. It might be chalked up to unexplainable metabolic issues, if it weren't for a series of notes left on his fridge -- pictures, even, of a Hangman game that he can't remember drawing -- that seem to allude to an answer behind Trevor's insomnia.

Director Anderson uses a restrained yet overbearingly cold atmosphere in weaving together his complex mystery, giving The Machinist a density that you can almost cut through. As we begin the story with Trevor reading Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" with a hypnotically, heavy-eyed glaze over his eyes, it ignites those compelling puzzle-solving triggers in our minds. It also adds a precursor to its disparate demeanor. Bleakness is a major component to its success, operating on a heartless and mechanical level that taps into emotional stagnancy in a rather cold-blooded fashion. It's certainly not a pleasant cinematic experience, but it's damned compelling to say the least.

When Trevor begins his downward spiral into madness as he turns his life upside down -- in some ways positive, others excruciatingly negative -- to solve the riddle behind the random notes, The Machinist keeps a steady rhythm amid potentially tone-boggling chaos. Similar human conspiracy thrillers, like Roman Polanski's The Tenant or John Maybury's The Jacket, dart in maddening directions as the protagonist seeps deeper into his mystery. Brad Anderson, to the contrary, keeps a strangely low-key yet effective tone with his actors and the overall smoothness of the twisting reveals, crafting Reznik's revelatory scramble into a slow, painful descent. As he interweaves with the contorted tools in the unionized machine warehouse and through his sterile apartment, a sense of emptiness surrounds Trevor that seems strangely purposeful.

It's hard to critique Christian Bale's performance in The Machinist, largely because his dangerous weight loss and frail movement almost speak more than the words coming from his character's mouth. His work towards growing incredible thin likely added to Trevor's exhaustion as a character, making it easy for his frightening visage to seem drained and semi-lethargic. However, there's that unmistakable fire within Bale's eyes that gives us a taste of something extra, electricity that adds an additional layer to the character's complication. He's incredible effective, whether we're basing it on his visual appearance or his typically excellent dramatic stage presence, and overwhelmingly successful as the mysterious magnet wedged in the middle of The Machinist -- existing much more than merely a gimmick to sucker audiences into seeing the film.

Bale's interactions with the supporting cast, however, are what build the framework of The Machinist. His conversations with Jason Leigh's prostitute character mimic those to Sánchez-Gijón's waitress, even connecting similar phrases about his thinness that seem too similar to ignore. Similar vocal tones both conflict and interconnect with their opposing personalities, something that speaks to strong chemistry between Trevor and the dual relationships that he develops in his life. His frustration, enhanced by uneasy, disconnected relationships with his co-workers (including effective performances from Michael Ironside and Reg E. Cathey), becomes one of conspiracy-fueled mania as he ginger-foots around his new "pal", Ivan (John Sharian). The more complex Trevor's life gets, the deeper it dives into convolution -- and the more ambiguous all his acquaintances become.

As with Session 9, Brad Anderson makes it excruciatingly difficult to identify with any of the troubled, dark characters on a personal level in The Machinist, all the way until the culmination. He gives us all the clues that we might need to solve the riddle ourselves, placing them in plain sight for easy consumption. Even then, the tricks he has up his sleeve are devilish, primarily because they resonate on rather personal levels that end in, surprisingly, an uplifting and redeeming fashion. Don't get me wrong, The Machinist is as dark as thrilling mind-benders can get; however, there's something strangely rewarding and climactic about the conclusion that gives it an air of decency. Hitchcockian in construction with a garnish of philosophical "Twilight Zone" thought-ignition, Brad Anderson's grim cerebral meltdown relishes in parading all its tricks around Bale's unsettling presence -- then takes its audience down a gut-wrenching path towards its twist, one even more satisfying than Anderson's previous work.


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