Brad Anderson directed the 1998 film Next Stop Wonderland. His latest could have been called Next Stop Bizarro World. It is perhaps the darkest, most visually inventive and idiosyncratic psychological portrait to be put on celluloid since David Lynch made Eraserhead.
Christian (American Psycho) Bale took off more than 60 pounds to play the title role. Trevor Reznik is disappearing right in front of his own eyes and the film’s central question is: why doesn’t the character seem more concerned? He hasn’t slept in more than a year, we’re informed. During the day, he works in a gloomy machine shop where his fellow employees ask him if he’s all right. The management wants to know whether he’s doing drugs.
At night he can be found at the apartment of a sympathetic hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) or at an airport cafeteria where he leaves inordinately large tips for a luminous waitress who serves him coffee and pie, which he never eats.
There’s not a non-creepy moment in the film but some of the most unsettling take place during visits to Leigh’s place. Anderson poses Bale in ways that emphasize his emaciation. He’s as wasted away as a concentration camp survivor. When the call girl asks “Are you OK?”, he laughs, answers “Do I look OK?” and tightens his belt by another notch.
In terms of tone, the film’s somewhere between a bad dream and a blackly comic acid trip. Things take a turn for the even more twisted when a figure by the name of Ivan shows up at the shop one day in a red muscle car. “I haven’t seen you before,” Bale comments. “Oh, I’ve been here,” the mysterious figure chuckles. Tragedy ensues a day or two later when Reznik catches a glimpse of the walking freakshow while helping a coworker repair a particularly ominous piece of machinery. The shaven-headed stranger suddenly makes an unexpected threatening gesture in Bale’s direction, distracting him, and the next thing you know, the fellow who a few minutes earlier asked “Reznik, I need a hand” really does.
Naturally, it turns out that management claims no one by the name of Ivan has ever been employed by the place. Bale’s former buddies make it clear they no longer want him around but he keeps showing up for work anyway, determined to prove to them that this Ivan exists.
He keeps losing more weight too. In some movies, the action pivots on a race against the clock. The Machinist pivots on a race against the scale. Bale accumulates bits of evidence-including a photograph-which seem to confirm that Ivan is real but the viewer is left to wonder whether the pursuer will, in fact, disappear before his quarry can be made to materialize.
Based on a Rubik’s cube of a script by Scott Kosar, the picture pays tribute to Hitchcock, Lynch and the early work of Roman Polanski, whose 1976 masterpiece The Tenant, features a character who could’ve been Trevor Reznik’s long lost uncle. Anderson whips up an ambiance that’s a potent blend of paranoia, menace and generalized malaise and paces the dreamlike action within it perfectly. For his part, Bale delivers a vivid and startling piece of extreme acting. Sure, he’s an American psycho again but the demons that drive this character are a breed apart from those that made Patrick Bateman the madman of Manhattan. This is a terrifically original performance. And, once the pieces click into place in the film’s final few moments, a surprisingly moving one too as it turns out.
A nightmare with a moral center, The Machinist is bleak, disturbing, unflinchingly weird and one of the most effectively made movies to hit theaters within the past year. Here’s one that didn’t roll off the Hollywood assembly line.