The Machinist

Talk of Christian Bale movies led to a re-watch of The Machinist. Even for a second viewing, the movie was just as intense and gripping as I had remembered it. Over the years, psychological thrillers have become relatively commonplace, bringing with them a plethora of novel mental diseases into public limelight. Yet, there is something about the power of something as commonplace as guilt, that can take an unbelievable toll on the human mind. And when it is accompanied by a harrowingly gaunt 120 pound Bale, there is something tantalizingly concrete about the experience, that sticks with you. Through the movie and beyond.

If you have not heard of the movie yet, you probably may not know that Bale starved himself for the role. Allegedly, consuming one cup of coffee and an apple each day, he lost 62 lb, dropping to a mere 120 lb. This leaves him, for most part of the movie, as little more than a skeleton. Sunken cheeks, ribs sticking out, eyes unnaturally protruding, barely covered by the stretched eyelids, Bale presents an image of insomnia that is hard to imagine let alone replicate. The most incredible part is that he had to regain the mass plus 60 more pounds for his role in Batman Begins.

Trevor Reznik, hadn't slept is more than a year. He works in a factory as a machinist, handling precision cutting tools. Through the year, he not only loses weight, but finds himself increasingly isolated from everyone else around him. His only two companions are a waitress at an all-night airline diner, Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) and a prostitute named Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Things take a turn for the worse, when he meets a new coworker named Ivan (John Sharian). Ivan is a guy Trevor has never seen before, but it seems as if none of the others that work with him know him either. Figuring out who Ivan is becomes an ever present distraction for Trevor, and in one such distracted state he accidentally causes one of his coworkers to lose a hand.

Uncovering Ivan's identity now becomes an obsession for Trevor that nothing else, not even losing his job and his sanity, is able to stop. Already on the edge, Trevor's reality begins to crumble, scene by scene in front of the camera. This is probably one of the most compelling portrayals of psychotic self-destruction in movies. As goes Trevor, so does the audience, till the final unraveling of the mystery along with the last shred of reality.

There is more to the movie beyond the haggard Bale. The story is well done, the screenplay and editing are the right level of uncomfortable. Lighting is harsh, accentuating the bone-structure of the lead insomniac. The whole movie sports a flat, desaturated look, through which patches of color seems to burst forth as if in a dream. There are so many other details that add additional dimensions to the movie. Like upon finding an unexplained post-it note on his refrigerator, Trevor proceeds to begin analyzing it, ignoring the apparent bucket-full of blood that seems to be dripping all around it. These and other dissonances between Trevor and the audience work to enhance the feeling of disconnection with reality.

The Machinist is not a scary psychological thriller. It is introspective thriller, riveted on a character that seems larger than life and pitiful at the same time. It is a private study of reality, at the center of which is Trevor. By the end of the movie, the abnormal begins to feel so normal, that it takes a while and conscious effort to reset the baseline for reality. And that is when you will be most thankful for a good night's sleep, and a fresh start the next day.

April 17, 2011

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