What are the ravages of sin? Much of our culture has moved beyond the traditional Christian notions of heaven (earned by good acts) and hell (which is the place of punishment for wickedness). But despite this, the pain of sin — or perhaps simply terrible mistakes — can ravage the soul, and indeed put us in a kind of personal hell.
Such is the premise of The Machinist, starring an amazingly frail-looking Christian Bale in a tour-de-force performance, despite his emaciated frame. Following up on the style, structure, and feel of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, this film from Brad Anderson nevertheless is an even darker, bleaker vision of the ravages of guilt. Trevor Reznik works in a union shop as a machinist, but he seems to be trailed by inexplicable hurt. For over a year, we find out, he has not been able to sleep, and evidently he has used his body as the site for his punishment. The film is actually difficult to watch at times, as we see Bale’s skeletal frame move about the screen, his pain written on the body.
Have you ever suffered from sustained insomnia? There is no quicker way to lose one’s sense of reality, and Anderson uses his filmmaking style to build a sense of unease which builds throughout the picture. Much like for Leonard Shelby in Memento, small objects and seemingly insignificant images make life a prison of memory for Trevor Reznik. As an acting piece, Bale is complemented with a performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh as a prostitute named Stevie, and Aitana Sanchez-Gijon as Maria, the waitress he over-tips and eventually dates. Furthering the Christian iconography, Stevie is the whore while Maria is the Madonna.
I haven’t even mentioned the biggest plot development in the movie. Tired from his lack of sleep, Reznick accidently starts a lathe machine at work, causing a coworker to lose his arm in a gruesome accident. As a viewer, I wished Anderson would offer some tiny flecks of brightness; the film is dominated by dark blues and grays and nary a moment of humor. It’s the accident that ultimately causes Reznick to fall apart and finally confront the cause of his pain, but not before we see his nadir.
The Machinist is a solid movie — an effective psychological thriller which fans of the genre should see. However, the bleakness of the film makes it rather a downer to watch; I actually had to take a break during one early scene I so felt a sense of impending doom. As for another criticism I have read from others, that Machinist is all form and ultimately shallow, I disagree. Director Brad Anderson and Christian Bale work with a solid script to dramatize loss, guilt, and loneliness in a unique way. For a film like this to fail to be fully Hitchcockian doesn’t make it a disappointment. The Machinist holds a 7.8 out of 10 rating on Internet Movie Database, and I think that’s an accurate rating. Even if all of the elements do not coalesce perfectly, that doesn’t mean this film is a failure. The Machinist is one I won’t forget, especially the next time I see a fully healthy Christian Bale.