All My Sins Remembered

The Machinist

The Machinist filled me with dread — but not because it’s an evocative depiction of a man who hasn’t slept in a year and as a result is starting to become unhinged.

It is that, yet my deep apprehension came from another source. At about the time the plot begins to circle back toward elucidation — when the audience gets irrefutable confirmation that yes, the central character is at the least hallucinating — I realized there was no way for the movie to resolve itself satisfactorily. And although the way the film dies is expected, it’s still deeply disappointing. The Machinist is frequently fascinating, particularly in detail and in the margins, but at heart it lacks inspiration and has little to say.

Directed by Brad Anderson, starring Christian Bale, and written by Scott Kosar, the movie was obviously borne of passion. Anderson’s direction is assured, and the cinematography and production design ooze grimy-gray unease. Bale believed in the material enough to emaciate his body into an alien physique, with a wasp waist and deliberate yet graceful movement.

He plays Trevor Reznik, a factory worker who leads a peripheral but relatively robust existence. He doesn’t have a partner, but he has a regular hooker; he doesn’t have friends, but he visits the airport coffee shop every night to flirt brightly and carelessly with the woman behind the counter. That nobody seems troubled by Trevor’s insomnia or shocking weight loss — he’s approaching Lindsay Lohan weight, and he’s about eight inches taller — is the first sign that things are askew.

Then there’s the strange, beefy fellow that Trevor meets outside the factory, with biker duds and attitude and some odd variation on a Southern accent. And the in-progress game of hangman that Reznik finds on a sticky note on his refrigerator. And an amusement-park ride packed with sex and carnage. And the blood that leaks from Trevor’s freezer when his utilities are turned off ... .

For what it ends up being, the movie is surprisingly smart. Kosar invests the script, particularly in its specifics, with gravity, mystery, nightmarish flourishes, a touch of gallows humor, and one brilliantly employed and surprisingly elegant metaphor, using a forking path to show the choice of denial, and the consequences of that continual decision.

But the movie’s core is lazy and inferior. The intermingling of the real and unreal as the representation of a mortal battle for the body and/or soul recalls dozens of movies, some of them great or nearly so: Psycho, Carnival of Souls, Jacob’s Ladder, Fight Club, Memento, Mulholland Drive — most of which are testaments to the power of guilt to warp the mind. (The Machinist is, at least, much better than the genre’s A Beautiful Mind, but that’s not saying much.)

The obvious difference between those strong movies and this weak one is how mundane The Machinist’s “secret” is, both in terms of its dramatic impact on the audience when it’s revealed, and the major disconnect between the magnitude of cause and effect. It’s not quite arguing that “Rosebud” is the key to Charles Foster Kane’s life, but it’s close, and asserted without irony or humor.

But even before the source of Trevor’s ailments is revealed, it’s clear the movie is going to end with a whimper.

A critical difference between the aforementioned exemplars of the fantasy/reality fusion and the mediocre Machinist is that the better movies truly commit to their unrealities, plunging the audience into their worlds without the opportunity to question what’s happening. The Machinist, on the other hand, invites speculation with its languorous pace and its failure to polarize life and dream. The movie tries to play it halfway, in the sense that the fantasy isn’t very fantastic and the reality isn’t realistic; there’s little distinction in tone or plausibility between the two. The most outlandish thing in the movie is the extreme irrationality of Reznik’s desperation; as his world begins to collapse, he seizes any bit of information, no matter how ambiguous, as the identifier of a new conspirator against him.

Arguably, the writer and director don’t want to trick the audience. They’d rather you understand Trevor’s state of mind than be surprised by the not-so-shocking revelations of the finale. Yet there’s no richness within the main character. Among the protagonists in the above-mentioned films, Bale’s machinist is far from the only one who uses psychosis as tool for avoidance, but he is the only one whose psychosis is the character.

The audience in The Machinist is given no understanding of Trevor Reznik before he started wasting away; he does not exist outside of his insomnia, and its effects on his physical and mental health. At least with Kane, one has the context and perspective to appreciate the man when “Rosebud” turns out to be a sled.

Perhaps that’s the point — that Reznik was so scarred by what happened that the man he was before ceased to be. Certainly, his body looks like a symbol for a withered psyche. Yet from an audience point of view, that argument doesn’t work, because without a sense of who Trent was, we don’t care what happens to him in the movie’s present.

It doesn’t help matters that Reznik is such an unconflicted and passive figure, accepting and indulging his insomnia — even defining himself by it. One gets a sense in the other movies of a genuine interior struggle or a quest — an active journey that eventually leads ... to a different place. That tension creates drama, and audience interest. Yet based on the regular references to the forked road, The Machinist implies that Trevor prefers his sleepless, starved existence to the prospect of facing the cause of his malady, and his placidity in the airport diner suggests that he likes it. Even when he’s being dogged by sinister forces and his flagging attention causes an accident at the factory, he chooses this torturous life over its alternative.

The fascinating idea here, and the great, under-explored promise of The Machinist, is that Trevor Reznik is not living in two realities — the one shared by fellow human beings and the one in his brain — but three: His subconscious is invading his fantasy, begging him to confront that which drives him into a world of his own creation.

And when his subconscious can no longer be ignored, Trevor Reznik becomes frenzied, desperate to discover who or what is taunting him but simultaneously petrified of what he might find. Ultimately, he is simply a man trying to run and hide from himself.

To no one’s surprise, he fails.

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