“The Machinist” is a film which has gathered a great deal of attention due to the fact that lead star Christian Bale (“Reign of Fire”) shed a shocking 65lbs for the role, transforming himself into a hollow faced, walking skeleton. The publicity surrounding Bale’s dedication serves the film very well, as it detracts from the fact that, Bale’s performance aside, “The Machinist” is actually a very standard effort, being entirely predictable and depressingly reliant on conventional narrative cliché. At the end of the day, whilst “The Machinist” is well-directed and presses most of the right buttons, it simply offers nothing new, and as a result fails to stand out from the rest of the ever growing mystery/paranoia genre.
The plot centres upon Trevor Reznik (Bale), a machine operator who works the night shift and who claims not to have slept in a year. The insomnia has certainly taken its toll, as Reznik resembles little more than a bag of bones and has a social life which consists of hanging around the airport coffee bar. As if things weren’t bad enough, the appearance of a mysterious new co-worker sets his already frayed nerves even further on edge, leading to a gruesome accident which leaves another man horribly injured. Before long, bizarre notes are appearing on his fridge, and Reznik becomes increasingly obsessed with the thought that he is the victim of a sinister conspiracy, a plot whose nature he is determined to uncover at all costs.
It is unfortunately no exaggeration to state that the average genre fan will have a pretty good idea where “The Machinist” is heading after five minutes have passed. This is mainly due to the fact that director Brad Anderson (also responsible for the vaguely similar “Session 9”), along with writer Scott Kosar (a man whose name is unlikely to be popular with horror fans, having penned the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and the upcoming “Amityville” remake) clearly signpost that Reznik is quite mad, an unsurprising revelation which makes much of the resultant plotting somewhat redundant as the viewer is simply waiting for the character to wake up to his own dementia.
There is obviously a little more to the film than a simple case of insanity; however it is tiring and exasperating to sit through yet another film which hinges on such a traditional gambit. Despite playing his hand so ridiculously early, Kosar still seems to be under the impression that the plot is mysterious and intelligent, and he continues to labour the point by throwing in endless symbolism and metaphor, most of which are glaringly obvious. In fact, the viewer is left somewhat baffled by the film’s lack of innovation, and at times is left to wonder if all of this obviousness is being used for some sort of twisted irony or in a ploy to smuggle in a leftfield twist ending — hopes which are dashed by the film’s conclusion, which is exactly as expected.
Such weak plotting would have been more forgivable if “The Machinist” had a solid core to build upon, though unfortunately it does not. Apart from the central character, the film is packed with thinly written stereotypes and groan-inducing red herrings, most of whom serve as little more than pawns in the would-be grand design. As a result, the viewer cares little for any of them, if at all, and the film becomes a cold, unemotional affair. Similarly, there is very little action, and not a great deal happens beyond a couple of ugly machine accidents and the expected quota of chase scenes and murky visions. Although the film is never actually dull, it does leave the viewer waiting for things to happen, teasing with a barrage of ominous signs and suggestions, without ever really delivering in a satisfactory way.
These criticisms aside, “The Machinist” does have a fair few things going for it, which are just about enough to make it worth watching. Anderson directs with real flair, painting with a well chosen palette of subdued colours which makes for a gloomy and atmospheric viewing experience. There are a few genuinely creepy scenes, and whilst most of these unfortunately lead nowhere, they do keep things moving along nicely. The film does have an over reliance on flashbacks and dream sequences, though these give Anderson the opportunity to insert a variety of different stylistic techniques, some of which are quite startling.
The main reason for watching “The Machinist” is undoubtedly the performance of Christian Bale, which is indeed worth the admission fee on its own. Beyond his remarkable physical sacrifice, Bale brings the somewhat sketchily written Reznik to twitching life, lending him a sympathy which would otherwise have been undeserved. Although the character is not a particularly likeable or indeed realistic creation, Bale at least brings a touch of humanity to the role, something which makes the tired events of the film far more engaging than they would otherwise have been.
Although it is difficult to recommend a film purely on the strength of the star’s performance, it is only this which rescues “The Machinist” from being eminently forgettable, and indeed, is the only thing likely to stick in the viewer’s memory after the credits have rolled.
Brad Anderson (director) / Scott Kosar (screenplay)
CAST: Christian Bale …. Trevor Reznik
Jennifer Jason Leigh …. Stevie
Aitana Sanchez-Gijon …. Marie
John Sharian …. Ivan
Michael Ironside …. Miller
Larry Gilliard Jr. …. Jackson