The Machinist: a movie review

Make no mistake: this is an unflinchingly grim film, and I’m still not sure it’s a good one. But it’s certainly compelling and wrenching to watch.

The Machinist is perhaps best know for the grueling physical transformation Christian Bale underwent to take on the part of Trevor Reznik, the chronically insomniac and obviously troubled lead character. From the first close-up, it’s brutally obvious that there’s no trickery at play here: Trevor’s cadaverous skull wavers unsteadily on the fragile stem of his throat. He’s not just skeletal but snake-like, all sinew and skin and horribly visible bone. Trim little gamine Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Stevie, friendly neighborhood call girl) looks positively lush next to him.

The harsh lighting emphasizes his dreadful emaciation early on, while it still has the power to shock. More shocking still, perhaps, is how quickly we grow accustomed to it. (Bale’s wasted frame, unsettling though it is to see, is not the most gruesome or triggering sight in this bleak, gray world. As the title suggests, Trevor works in a machine shop, and you know what that means. Uh-oh.)

But paradoxically, the realism of Bale’s emaciation, the brutal fact of it, kept pulling me out of the film… and more than that, it spurred me to question: is this movie worth the suffering Bale inflicted upon himself? Is this a piece of art worthy of that deprivation and damage, that self-immolating level of artistic and physical devotion? I suppose only Christian Bale is entitled to make that judgment, but from my place in the audience, I think that Bale’s sacrifice suggests a disproportionate, maybe even a penitential, commitment to craft… or maybe just a misplaced sense of the project’s artistic value.

That’s not to say it’s a bad film — not at all. The Machinist is a well-crafted, uneasy psychological thriller with a deeply unsettling tone. Bale brings his usual intensity and restrained energy to this role, and he manages a remarkable trick: in his scenes with amiable waitress/possible love interest Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), Trevor’s seemingly relaxed, suave banter is loaded with nervy, murky significance for the audience. Like director Brad Anderson’s gritty no-budget thriller Session 9, The Machinist is suffused with an eerie, uneasy sense of looking through another person’s eyes, suffering their anxieties, afflicted by their blind spots.

[This review is cross-posted to The VideoReport.]

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