The lunatic is in my head,” these Pink Floyd lyrics from “Dark Side of the Moon” would have made an apt theme song for The Machinist, Brad Anderson’s new film starring an emaciated Christian Bale as a paranoid insomniac on a quest for self-identity. Alas, the song would have been by far the best thing in this failed morality play of a film, whose grotesque excesses overwhelm its fleeting moments of brilliance.
The Machinist calls to mind themes from many recent films: the theme of the quest for the identity of a culprit that puts in question the identity and innocence of the investigator himself from Memento (it even uses Memento’s posted notes as clues for a forgetful investigator); the alienation and split personalities of Fight Club; the gruesome meditation on guilt and punishment in Seven; and the hyperkinetic paranoia of Pi. But it is inferior to all of these films; the closest it comes to mimicking any of them is in its grisly moments, which approximate scenes in Seven. The film it most calls to mind, however, is the pretentious and artistically overwrought Identity.
The problem is not with Bale’s performance as the bewildered machinist, Trevor Reznik, who’s not slept in a year and looks like it’s been that long since he last had a good meal. Between stints in American Psycho and in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Batman, Bale was so taken with the script for The Machinist that he lost a third of his body weight to persuade Anderson he was right for the part. The physical distortion and diminution reflects psychic deprivation. As his prostitute friend Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) remarks, “If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.”
What’s wrong with him? That’s what Trevor wonders. Trevor is curious about lots of things–the source and meaning of the post-it notes that mysteriously appear in his kitchen, the strange co-worker who threatens him but whose very existence is denied by his boss, and why he seems to be the occasion of unintended harm to those around him. Reznik devotes an awful lot of attention to cleanliness, as he applies bleach to his already clean floor and hands (a Lady Macbeth reference here?) And the look of the film is bleached, the colors nearly washed out, except for splatters of red. Oddly, Reznik doesn’t seem all that worked up about near hallucinatory experiences of blood gushing from his refrigerator. But, then, he does have a lot on his mind.
The script itself, penned by Scott Kosar (Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Amityville Horror), has some things going for it. The title refers to Trevor Reznik’s place of employment, a machine shop in an anonymous and desolate industrial park, a place where, according to Kosar, workers are “extensions of their machines.” The setting poses the question: “do machinists have existential crises?” The film is much better at moods and locales, at images of deprivation and desolation, than it is at plotting or philosophical debate–a lot like popular existentialist philosophy in that regard.
The film wants to be a thoughtful thriller, one that takes issues of identity, self-knowledge, and guilt seriously. Reznik reads Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot and wears what appears to be a religious medal around his neck. What are we to make of this? Who knows? Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which features a holy prostitute, would have suited the film better but even to begin that line of consideration is to give this film far more credit than it deserves.
In a surprise ending, the film explains the source of Trevor’s strange afflictions and provides an answer to the question, “who are you?” Viewers will at this point run back through some scenes and say, “Oh, that’s what that was about.” But there’s no great sense of insight here; the resolution could have been handled in any number of ways.
The real problem with the film is the dissatisfying and disgusting imbalance between the ordinary, if horrifying, source of Trevor’s guilt and the extraordinary, belabored, and grotesque detailing of his psychosomatic disorders. In this respect, this bigger budget entry with bigger stars marks a falling off from Anderson’s low-budget thriller, Session 9 (for my NRO review, see here). By contrast, The Machinist continues the already established Hollywood trend of doing less with more.