Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Machinist

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #4 (first-run)

Man, Brad Anderson has gotten dark. He's good at it, but I'm starting to wonder if he's got another Next Stop Wonderland or Happy Accidents in him.

This is Anderson's first feature based upon another person's screenplay, and it's fairly clear. His previous films had a much more evident spark of creativity to them, whether it be the background Sam claims in Accidents or the literally dangerous atmosphere to the mental hospital in Session 9. Writer Scott Kosar's other credits are for horror movie remakes, and certain elements of The Machinist will seem very familiar.

The story unfolds at a leisurely pace. Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) is a machinist at a tool and die company who hasn't been able to sleep for a year. He tries, but it just doesn't happen, and he fills his time off the floor by seeing a hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and by coffee and conversation with a waitress (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) at an airport diner. His apartment is sparse, devoid of any ornament, and he's wasting away - both women remark that if he were any thinner, he wouldn't exist. Soon, though, a man named Ivan (John Sharian) appears at his workplace, and when he distracts Trevor at one point, it sets of an accident that causes a co-worker to lose an arm. During the insurance investigation, though, Trevor is told that Ivan doesn't exist.

It's not terribly difficult to predict the trajectory of the movie after this - Reznik will get paranoid, he'll be shunned at work, and the audience will figure out well ahead of Reznik that someone who has gone seven thousand hours without sleep may not have the most reliable perspective on any given situation. That hampers the movie a bit, because when the audience knows something terribly obvious that the main character obviously doesn't, that character is always going to be a step or three behind. The only way for the audience not to feel frustrated with how dim the protagonist is then becomes "withheld information", which merely delays aggravation.

Anderson makes the movie visually striking, though - the desaturated colors are a good indicator of how numb Reznik seems to be growing to the world, with the occasional object rendered in full color (such as Ivan's red convertible) thus seeming to have significance. A sequence in an amusement park house-of-horrors ride is certainly disturbing. And the way in which Reznik opts to make his claim of a hit and run believable enough for the police to give him information on Ivan is not for the squeamish.

Still, the most talked-about visual in the movie is Christian Bale's insane weight loss. Dropping a third of the mass from his six-foot-two frame to a final weight of 130 pounds, Bale is so skinny as to make the audience uncomfortable. Heck, he tripped my reality filter - I looked at him and thought "that's a CGI effect; he doesn't look human". It certainly makes Reznik look like a ghost, fading away from his life. It occasionally overshadows the story and character, though, making me feel more like I was watching a freakshow than a movie.

And it can't be healthy. If I ever hear of my theater-major brother doing something like this for a role, I will call our mother and make sure that he is inundated with cookies and pies and cakes until he relents.

The story is of the variety that comes together well enough by the end, but starts to look a little less plausible about ten minutes later. As with many unreliable-narrator stories, that's when you can start to piece together what literally happened and what may not have, and that's fine, but when you try to figure out where the stuff that may not have comes from, why it interjects itself into Reznik's mind at that point and in that way, that's a little trickier.

Whether you ultimately like or dislike the movie, Bale's emaciated body will stick in your mind, probably well after the somewhat derivative story and decent performances fade.

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