“If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.” Lying back in her post-coital bed, Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) watches her date as he’s washing up in the bathroom. Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) lurches toward the doorway, sucks in his chest, and dangles his arms like a skeleton in some ancient cartoon, his eyes sunken, his frame ghastly. A nice girl, occasional abuse victim, and mostly self-assured prostitute, Stevie is alarmed and amused at the body before her. Gasping and laughing, she begs him to stop. Trevor is here an awful specter, a man wasting away but strangely animated.
Trevor’s story emerges gradually in Brad Anderson’s stunning new film, The Machinist. Less a plot than an unraveling, the script by Scott Kosar (who wrote the latest Texas Chainsaw Massacre) concerns Trevor’s insomnia, going on a year now, for which he can find no cure, and for which he suffers quietly, even dutifully. He lives in a dank, small apartment, works at a factory amid machines — lurking, chafing, depleting machines, blocking vision (as the camera shoots from behind them) and stifling thought. Some nights, she visits Stevie, whose soft, generous flesh seems almost to overwhelm him as they lie beside one another in her bed, if not for the sheer harshness of his physical edges, his jagged collarbone, slashes of cheeks, protruding hips.
Promotional materials report that Bale crash-lost some 60 pounds for the part, that he was, understandably and visibly here, occasionally (but not dangerously) delirious on set. It is amazing, and Bale might be commended or challenged for taking such extreme measures. But if you can see past his striking self-transformation, the actor’s performance here is remarkable in other ways, as if peering into the nature of illusion and delusion demanded by film. Immersed as most viewers are in a culture of media imagery, Trevor is something of an anomaly, an image disappearing, a performance as much about reduction and loss as it is about pronouncement and identification. He doesn’t exist, in fact, in the ways that most movie characters do.
The question that bothers Trevor throughout The Machinist is simple and profound, articulated repeatedly: “Who are you?” Slipping in and out of a reality that may or may not wholly subjective, he starts his self-inventory at a dark and noirish pier, attempting to dump what looks like a body, wrapped in a carpet, into the black water. Slosh slosh. And suddenly, as he struggles to hold on, the carpet gets away and rolls open, as if to expose his crime. He freezes, scared. And then, no body. His mouth open, a black hole, he hears behind him the voice of a seeming security guard: “Who are you?”
It’s an excellent question. And he spots it again, scrawled in block letters on a post-it stuck to Stevie’s bathroom mirror. And in another form, another post-it, when a game of hangman appears on his refrigerator door, with letters filled in each day, taunting him to discover the solution. And yet, Trevor is increasingly unable to answer this essential question, even as he earnestly seeks what might, in another film, be termed the “truth” of his identity, the reason for his illness, and the trauma that drives his tragedy. His quest takes him deep inside himself, as this is reflected in his surroundings: he tries to maintain a veneer of order, of control over his out-of-joint figure assiduously chewing platefuls of food at his kitchen table, solemnly scrubbing down his apartment, down on his hands and knees with a toothbrush and bleach to attack his bathroom tiles, the camera hanging over him, pondering the utter boniness of his scrawny back.
Judging by comments tossed his way by trash-talking coworkers at the machine shop — Jackson (Larry Gilliard Jr.) and Jones (Reg E. Cathey) — Trevor used to be more able to joke with them, to fit in. Now he hunkers down on the locker room bench, feeble-seeming and sinewy, as they wonder aloud at his visibly freakish condition. How does anyone walk around so emaciated? His boss calls him into the office: “I think you look like toasted shit,” he announces, by way of evincing his concern. Even this scant solace is lost when, one day at work, Trevor is distracted by a coworker Ivan (John Sharian), then makes a mistake that causes Miller (Michael Ironside) to catch his arm in a machine, resulting in a grinding and bloody mess.
Though Miller afterwards seems forgiving — even joking about the accident and suggesting that the insurance payment has made him rich beyond his mundane dreams — Trevor is consumed with guilt. At the same time, his remaining coworkers openly condemn him (“Nobody wants you here, nobody”), a level of discomfort that drives Trevor to seek an external cause for his unexpected laxity. And so he chases down his apparent tormentor, the burly, gruff-voiced distraction Ivan, who drives a distinctive red Firebird and seems intent on deriding him. Inviting Trevor to have a beer at the local dive, Ivan reveals — or seems to reveal — that he’s had a mightily bizarre surgery, such that he’s got toes on his hands. For Trevor, delirious and vulnerable, this doesn’t register as anything but odd, but for you, the film has taken a turn into some other dimension.
Still, Trevor knows enough to be stricken, and seeks comfort with Stevie, who proves unable to provide what he needs. When she appears with a black eye, an “occupational hazard,” he assumes it’s the work of her mysterious and wholly threatening “ex,” from whom Trevor is quite visibly incapable of protecting her. And so he looks elsewhere for escape, or more precisely and metaphorically, a dream of mobility. Once a week, he orders pie at the airport café, where he’s waited on by lovely Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). A Madonna-like single mother (in other words, not the whore with whom he spends his other evenings), she smiles and treats Trevor gently, inviting him to spend Mother’s Day with her and her young son, at a fairground, where the rides are noisy and families smile like pictures. Amid the ruckus, he feels both out of place and reassured, though it becomes increasingly explicit that his paranoia will overwhelm even this fragile fantasy.
As layers of fantasy pile on, it appears that Trevor’s grasp on his experience is waning. Not unlike Anderson’s brilliant Session Nine, The Machinist digs so deeply into its protagonist’s mind that it’s difficult to see a way out. The literal space of the film, shot brilliantly by Xavi Gimenez, turns poetic and haunting, an effect helped along considerably by Roque Banos’ Bernard Herrmann-ish score and evocative use of the theremin (an old-school horror movie instrument beloved by Brian Wilson and Jon Spencer alike). “Something’s happened to me Stevie,” he moans after arriving unannounced on her doorstep. “Some kind of plot.” Duly disturbed, she asks what he’s worried about. His answer is as cryptic as it is suggestive: “I don’t know yet.”
The suggestion that he will know, eventually, is of a piece with The Machinist‘s promise of solution, that its temporal and narrative discombulations will come together at last. And yet, even as flashbacks begin to show Trevor at other moments, when his head is slightly less scrambled and his body less eaten away, the film is never not about process. Men become machinelike, machines take the place of men, and still, production and damage, ambition and corruption continue, churning in endless cycles of desire.