Friday, May 20, 2005

Movie Review: The Machinist

There is a history of Hollywood movies in which the protagonist is balanced on the edge of sanity and the viewer is left to wonder whether the action as seen through the character's eyes is real or imagined. Not least for the reason that the tragic and perplexing ways of the human mind in this regard are not uncommon and provide just the kind of grist appropriate for intriguing and wrenching stories.

Still, in the last few years there has been a spike in the number of such dramas. To bolster my claim I'm not going to name a single one and am too lazy to hunt down the titles which I forget (please feel free to provide the names of these flicks in the comments' section.) (Ah at least the I remember the Russell Crowe movie, A Beautiful Mind.)

Perhaps it is these times of stimulation overdose on numerous fronts and the spectre of an insane and bloody few decades ahead of us that have spawned a mini-genre centered around the breakdown of the mind and the blurring between reality and fantasy. Or maybe the well of ideas is dry.

Regardless, The Machinist is one such film.

Something is very wrong with Trevor Reznik. He is a machinist who works on the grimy shop floor of a small tool and dye production plant in an unnamed, mid-sized, dreary American city. He hasn't had a sound night of sleep for a solid year.

For the voyeur in all of us, Christian Bale, who plays the lead, provides one of the most memorable cinematic examples of an actor undergoing serious physical hardships so as to add to the credibility of his performance.

Bales's emaciated frame is something to behold and will elicit misplaced guffaws from many. The director recognized the attraction of such a rare accomplishment and regular shots of the shirtless wraith feature throughout the first half of the movie. The rapid weight gain by the likes of De Niro in Raging Bull pale in comparison to the truly insane self-torture that must have been necessary to achieve this look.

Just what is haunting Reznik is the mystery. A clever viewer may perhaps unravel the events that have conspired to drive him close to the edge. As the director makes it evident that the "what" has been buried in the main character's own psyche, the audience is likely to be as surprised by the various twists that emerge as Reznik’s mind convulses and forces him to stare down the truth.

The self-loathing doesn't just result in his own misery, as much as he might wish. An industrial accident because of Reznik's lack of sleep and wavering sanity triggers the beginning of the end-game in his own internal battle to come to grips with his troubled recent past. Those around him shake their heads at his unlikely recounting of different events. As a result, not only does Reznik start to question his own take on reality but the viewer also wonders if what they are seeing through his eyes is real.

There are some good supporting roles including Jennifer Jason Leigh as the cliched caring whore of whom Reznik has deemed is the only woman he is worthy. Also, Michael Ironside, the shop floor victim of Reznik's carelessness, an always appropriate addition to noirish dramas such as this.

Flat lighting and overcast skies are featured throughout, and interior shots are washed in a green/grey hue to add to the sombre atmosphere. Close-ups of Bale as he screws up his mug in incomprehension and confusion are also regular features.

The film comes full circle in 2 ways. First, the arrival at the place where the movie began, a flash forward that started the freak show rolling. Most importantly, the ending marks a dilemma overcome by the main character as the cat and mouse game with himself reaches a conclusion. Though there is no carefree, pollyanna future projected as things draw to a close, there is at least a sense that the worst of a self-imposed ordeal is over.

While there is a good story doled out over the course of this gloomy and atmospheric film, the focus is undoubtedly the struggle of the main character and Christian Bale provides a grimacing, convincing performance. The power of the human mind to hold us to account regarding our instilled values makes for a strong underlying theme. Just as it's hard to draw a perfectly straight line from motivating factors that guide our thoughts and actions, so too the consequences of a fleeting few moments can be taken care of in ways we might never fully understand.

Released: 2004

Director: Brad Anderson