The Machinist never really lets up.
The skeleton (if you’ll pardon the expression) of the story is simple: Christian Bale can’t sleep, is barely eating, and his life is spinning out of control. Pushed, finally, to the breaking point, he manages to come to terms with what’s been haunting him. The story itself is just shy of cliché, the kind of thing that sounds thuddingly obvious when you read the Wikipedia summary (your call; I won’t spoil things here).
But the movie is special, unforgettable, for how it gets to its goal. The Machinist paints a portrait of a mind in crisis, starting with dissonant chords and what looks very much like a man hiding a body. Things go downhill from there.
Christian Bale’s infamous 62-pound weight drop got the headlines at the time, but his emaciated appearance is part of a greater visual and auditory whole that makes you understand exactly how isolated, raw, and exhausted his character Trevor Reznik is. Using a limited color palette in a way that adds perspective rather than feeling like a gimmick, The Machinist takes us inside a cold and dangerous world, lit like an Edward Hopper painting. (Ebert, of course, said it better: “We see Trevor’s world so clearly through his eyes that only gradually does it occur to us that every life is seen through a filter.”) Director Brad Anderson and cinematographer Xavi Giménez create a world that is both deeply internal and still recognizable as the one we pass through every day. If you know the smell of hot metal, you’ll have it in your mind during every scene at Reznik’s workplace, and the neon glow of a late-night diner is both comforting and alienating. It’s a dark mirror, one that reflects Reznick’s own mental state.
And there is no escape. Reznick can’t sleep, and he can’t find solace. He can’t really connect with the few people who express concern for him. The only way out is through knowing himself. Only painful recognition can bring Reznick back into the light. Bale isn’t the only great performer in this movie, but he is the undeniable star, and without his work, the movie would fall apart.
Netflix tells me that I watched The Machinist in September 2010. By then, I’d had my own bout with catastrophic insomnia and guilt, though for very different reasons. But the feel of the movie was more than familiar. Depression is a funhouse mirror, where every kind intention is sinister and every outstretched hand feels like a lie. And just as with the realities of mental illness, Reznick’s final action doesn’t bring a neat happy ending. Instead, it opens up the possibility of a better tomorrow, somewhere down the line. Sometimes, that’s enough.