There are many ways into The Machinist, a freaky psychodrama about an insomniac who hasn't slept in a year, and who may now be having hallucinations -- what else could they be? -- that slowly begin to drive him mad.
But there's only one way out, and it's not too satisfying. After revving you up for something a little (but not entirely) different, The Machinist turns out to be another one of those movies with a twist that aims to "explain everything." And it does, except for why they bothered to make an artsy film and then resolve its psychological puzzle with a conventional climax. For a while The Machinist is "Son of Fight Club," and in part, that's how it ends. But finally it's more Twilight Zone than anything, and that's just not quite satisfying enough.
The writer, Scott Kosar, and the director, Brad Anderson, have credentials that suit the final 10 minutes of their movie more than the 90 that come first: Kosar recently wrote the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and a new version of The Amityville Horror, and Anderson has done lots of dramatic television, as well as the romantic dramedy Next Stop Wonderland. These résumés don't exactly scream "art film," but of course people can change.
The Machinist revolves around Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale), who works the night shift in the machine shop of a factory that manufactures things that we probably all use every day. He's a good worker and liked by his colleagues, who trash-talk each other with badinage in the locker room after the shift. Trevor used to play cards with the guys, but lately (one guy observes) he hasn't hung out as much. And he's lost a lot of weight.
A lot of weight. "If you were any thinner, you wouldn't exist," says Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the hooker who's become his de facto girlfriend. And at the all-night diner where he goes for coffee and pie, his sweet regular waitress Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijon) tells him exactly the same thing. (A coincidence? Don't bet on it.) Trevor is more than merely thin: He has the physique of a Holocaust survivor, with visible ribs and shoulder blades and collarbone. He walks with a Jack Skellington slouch, and his sunken eyes look like tablespoons.
This is all from not having slept for a year, although only at the end do we learn why. If you like, you can imagine some existential dilemma, or a life of tragedy upon tragedy that's finally overtaken him, or that he's come upon a nihilistic comprehension of the utter meaninglessness of it all. But that's not it.
Trevor's insomnia begins to take on dangerous new dimensions when Ivan (John Sharian) shows up in his life. Ivan is as bulky as Trevor is gaunt (not a coincidence), with one good hand and another that has some fingers fashioned out of a few unnecessary toes. He's menacing and aggressive, where Trevor is harmless and effete. He shows up on the job at the factory, where he causes Trevor to hit a switch that starts a machine that severs a colleague's arm. He stalks Trevor in a red sports car that nobody else can see. He shows up in a photograph that Trevor finds in the wallet of -- and so forth. You get the picture.
Until The Machinist ripped me off, I found myself liking it for a variety of reasons. Anderson photographs the film in a blue-tinted haze that washes out the color and sometimes even makes you think it's in black and white. The musical score is a spot-on imitation of '40s and '50s film noir (willowy reeds, stalking strings). Kosar's dialogue is beautifully bland, as if the characters know they don't really exist (in the sense that they are characters in a film), and so they converse in quotidian trivialities and clichés. The actors make it even more effective by uttering it with a pace and tone that lands skillfully between the ironic and the banal.
This is all why I expected more of The Machinist: As much as I grew frustrated with its existence in a vacuum, offering not a morsel of understanding about Trevor's condition, I at least hoped Anderson was leading us thorough an uncompromising piece of moodily satisfying thanatophilia. But it turns out that The Machinist, like The Twilight Zone, is just another damned morality play -- the last thing you'd ever say about Fight Club, which had the courage to blow the whole damned thing up.
Finally, there's Bale, who prepared for this role by doing a reverse double DeNiro. Actors can always gain weight or slip into a "fat suit," but makeup can't make someone look this thin -- especially not an actor like Bale, who's pumped up nicely for roles in the past. Far be it from me to question an actor's process. But at times his physical presence in The Machinist is distracting -- that is, too difficult to separate from what he obviously did to achieve it. His performance is fine: weary, defensive, explosive -- the gamut. I only wish he'd risked his life for a project with more meat on its bones.