I didn’t want it to come across as a horror movie.
— Brad Anderson, commentary, The Machinist
— Trevor (Christian Bale), The Machinist
With the imminent arrival in summertime theaters of the totally built Christian Bale as Batman, it’s not a little shocking to see him as the emaciated Trevor Reznik. Many potential viewers have not seen this figure before, as Brad Anderson’s The Machinist lingered only briefly in theaters last year. It’s an image you will not soon forget.
Reznik’s fraught, freaky-thin body appears right away in the film, just as Anderson introduces the project in his DVD commentary: “It’s the first film I directed that I didn’t write,” he intones, “but I thought the script [Scott Kosar’s first] was so dark and creepy and cool that I had to make it.” Underline that string of adjectives: Reznik now appears behind a window, almost disappearing behind nighttime light reflections, the ooky strains of a theremin lacing through Roque Baños’s delicately structured, ominous score. As shot by the wondrously inventive Xavi Gimenez, the scene is dark and creepy and, if not cool exactly, an indication of the cool oddness this film goes on to twist up into tight little bits. Shot in Barcelona (passing for “some American city,” as Anderson informs you, it wasn’t easy getting funding for The Machinist. “It tells you something about the American independent film industry, that we had to make the movie in Spain.”
As Anderson notes, the pace is immediately “languid,” spooky and emotional, not at all like today’s typical, fast-break thriller. (This much and more are noted again I the DVD’s making-of doc, “The Machinist: Breaking the Rules.”) While much has been made of Bale’s extreme weight loss for the part (63 pounds, and you feel like you can see every absent ounce), what’s most striking is how his body suits — no, becomes — this eerie mood. In our first glimpse of Trevor’s apartment, green and deep-focused, even as it’s unbearably small and imposing, occurs through a mirror as he washes his ravaged face (“Like a grandmother’s apartment that just had gone to seed,” says Anderson). Trevor’s turn to the camera is achingly slow, and then he looks past you, instead focused on a post-in on the wall behind him: “Who are you?”
Every view of Trevor re-poses this question: cut to him on his back in a bed, his prostitute/confidant Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh in yet another brave performance), his ribs jutting; cut to his back, bent over the sink as he washes his face again, from a perplexingly close angle; Anderson notes, “When you first open on that image, you don’t know what you’re looking at. It looks like some kind of monster, and then he raises his head and you see he’s a human being.” Cut again and again, to shots showing all his physical and metaphorical edges, his jagged collarbone, slashes of cheeks, protruding hips.
Beyond his physical transformation, though Bale’s performance is remarkable in other ways, granting you access into the very conceit of film — all illusion and surfaces, all planes receding into two dimensions. Trevor is an image disappearing, more about reduction and loss than self-knowledge and identification. He doesn’t exist in the ways that most movie characters do. And so you have to find a place next to or within him. There’s precious little room.
Trevor’s story emerges gradually, partly as you see him in various locations — Stevie’s place, the odious machine shop where he works, the airport diner where he drinks coffee through the nights. Less a plot than an unraveling, the script 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 attempts to maintain a veneer of order, some control over his out-of-joint figure assiduously chewing platefuls of chicken wings 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 “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 turns poetic and haunting (a murder scene in a bathroom, complete with fake-looking body, bloody knife, and shower curtain, reminds Anderson that writer Kosar “likes to describe the movie as the last movie Hitchcock would have ever made”).
“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. Poduction and damage, ambition and corruption continue, churning in endless cycles of desire.