If The Machinist was a stew, the ingredients would be Insomnia, Fight Club, and Memento, with just a touch of Darren Aronofsky sprinkled in for good measure. It has a character, Trevor, played by Christian Bale, who hasn’t slept for a year. Trevor is also seeing things, has a terrible memory — he leaves notes around his apartment in hopes he’ll see them later — and there’s a mysterious man named Ivan (John Sharian) who turns up but nobody else even believes he exists. And it’s all dark and stylishly created, like something Aronofsky might cook up.
The director is Brad Anderson, not Aronofsky, who has come up with a very interesting film, not quite as good as most of the elements that it takes inspiration from, but enjoyable nonetheless. The Machinist is a horror-noir, one that brings elements of the psychological thriller to the table, using the paranoid and sleep-deprived state of its main character to show us visceral imagery — and confuse us, and him, because of the odd things that we both see.
For instance, who is this Ivan character, and why doesn’t anyone else acknowledge his existence? Why doesn’t the clock ever move past 1:30? What exactly is causing Trevor’s insomnia? Who is playing a game of hangman on Trevor’s fridge? The state of mind of this character is something that we understand perfectly, and we don’t even need narration to convey that. That’s skilled filmmakers at work there. While lazier and less talented people would use narration as an easy way out, Anderson doesn’t flinch, instead giving us imagery and coaxing a strong performance out of Bale.
A large portion of the film relies on Bale, actually. He lost 60 pounds in preparation for the role, and looks sickly. I was concerned about his health watching him, and I can only imagine how much of a struggle it was for him to perform without a healthy body weight. The thing is that his character is often full of energy, rarely suffering the effects of being the underweight. When your actor is actually malnourished, keeping up that energy has got to be really hard.
However, the weight loss and Bale’s appearance helps add to the creepiness of the character, and the atmosphere of the film. It wouldn’t be quite as effective had Bale decided to, I don’t know, not put his health into jeopardy. I suppose CGI could have been used to make him appear as thin as he does here — and there are only a few shots in which you see how thin he truly is, so this might have been feasible even with The Machinist‘s small budget — but you have to appreciate the actor’s commitment to the role by going through the physical transformation required to make the film effective.
There are parts of The Mechanic that feel clichéd, like the character Stevie, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. She’s the “hooker with a heart of gold” character that we’ve all grown to … become bored with. She’s one of two females that Trevor finds comfort in. The second is Mario (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), the nighttime server at the airport, and who takes Tervor to the fair for Mother’s Day (along with her son), wherein many of the film’s secrets lie — if you know where to look.
You won’t know the first time you watch it. You might not even figure it out after the second. But at the fair is a ride, “Route 666,” which contains a lot of the answers you’ll look for. Consider that a hint for when you watch the film, although it won’t explain everything right away. You’ll still have to wait for the reveals, and only then will the fun house ride give you many answers.
Even at that point, there are still many points open to interpretation, depending on how deep you’re willing to look. You can think of the ride and its symbolism, or you can take the film more at face value. Either way, you’ll get something out of, although your experience will be different depending on which way you look at it. Perhaps both are correct, and it makes for a richer film as a result. I do recommend watching The Machinist at least twice, as it’ll allow for a much more enjoyable experience.
Well, “enjoyable” might not be the best word for it. Watching Trevor trudge through life is not fun, nor are any of the things that happen throughout the film. It’s a dark film that has been stylishly created, but if you’re looking for enjoyment, you’ll want to see something else. Bale doesn’t smile much, if ever, and neither does anyone else. They lead sad, sad lives, and it might just make you appreciate what you have. At least you can get to sleep, and you can remember most things that happen during the day, and you aren’t becoming psychotic.
The Machinist is a grossly interesting film, although it’s not at all fun. It has a severely malnourished and insomniac main character, it features a lot of dark, twists things, and it’s a film you have to think about in order to completely get — and even then, it’s open to interpretation depending on how deeply you look at it. It has a very strong performance given by Christian Bale, who lost a lot of weight yet still has to be quite energetic, and it’s absolutely worth watching at least twice, regardless of the formula and shameless ripping-off it does of other movies.