This much you know: to prepare for his role in The Machinist, Christian Bale transformed himself from stud to skeleton. The result is astonishing. Those brawny shoulders from American Psycho are reduced to mere chicken bones; he looks like he belongs not in a feature film, but in a National Geographic show on malnutrition.
Typically, this kind of transformation, while eye-popping, isnít enough to save a bad movie. Think Stallone and Copland. Self-sacrifice is great and all, but sometimes itís just a gimmick. So it comes as something of a surpriseóa thrilling oneóthat Baleís dedication to the role is matched, even surpassed, by the hair-raising quality of the film itself. The Machinist is creepy, uncomfortable, and smart; every second crackles with gloomy suspense.
Bale stars as the super-skinny Trevor Reznik, who hasnít slept in a year. (No explanation is given.) And he looks it. Trevor stumbles through the world with only the thinnest of threads to reality. Heís lonely, haunted, and desperate. Trevor has a job as a, well, machinist, working at a sinister factory that seems like something straight out of the Industrial Revolution.
At first subtly, and then more overtly, we begin to see cracks in Trevorís hellish reality. Director Brad Anderson (Session 9) plays a devilish game with our expectations and memory. For instance, every time Trevor looks at the clock, itís exactly 1:30. The second time it happens youíre not sure if you saw it correctly; the third time itís downright chilling. A slew of other detailsóa water tower, a cigarette lighter, even snippets of conversationóall seemingly innocuous, recur again and again, inviting the audience to join in on Trevorís madness.
Trevor soon meets a new coworker, Ivan (John Sharion), a creepy, sketchy-looking, sunglasses-in-daylight type of ambiguous bad guy. Ivan seems to drift in and out of the movie, and, more to the point, in and out of Trevorís consciousness. Itís clear that something doesnít quite add up with Ivan, and that mental discomfort, almost Lynchian, fuels the film with an ample supply of dramatic tension.
The true genius of The Machinist is its restraint. For all its psychological horror, thereís very little ďhorrorĒ actually shown onscreen. Anderson excels at hints and feints, at suggestions of dread, but never the real thing itself. The slow ride up the roller coaster is always more scary than the split-second plunge, a phenomenon that Anderson exploits to full effect. Itís a refreshing change from the hack-and-slash of mainstream horror films. For instance, every time that Trevor looks