Reviews

The Machinist (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Trevor is an image disappearing, more about reduction and loss than self-knowledge and identification.


The Machinist

Director: Brad Anderson
Cast: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, John Sharian, Michael Ironside
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Paramount Classics
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2005-06-07
Amazon affiliate
I didn't want it to come across as a horror movie.
-- Brad Anderson, commentary, The Machinist

I'm tired.
-- 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, the movie wasn't easy to get funded. "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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.