The psychological thriller: If it is well made, it typically does three things. First, it quickly creates tension and throws you a mystery that you feel part of; second, it demands your attention if you want to “get it” right when you’re supposed to; and third, it tempts you to re-watch it not just to catch the hints it drops but also to see if the movie was good for more than its puzzle. If the film, in addition to being well made, is also good, it will deliver on the re-watch and also contain subtext that demands your time and effort on its own. The mystery will be a vehicle for an idea, not a substitute or scapegoat for one.
With that said, if you stop somewhere well short of good but just close enough to well made, you will find Brad Anderson’s The Machinist. The Machinist is a Spanish-produced, English-language film about a man named Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale, who lost a third of his weight for the role) chasing a man everyone else denies the existence of. That man, Ivan, caused Trevor to start a machine that took off a coworker’s arm. Trevor is hated by his coworkers after the incident, and his solace lies in a prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a waitress named Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) at an airport coffee shop that makes conversation with him and even invites him out.
It starts off promising enough; Bale is so skeletal that the mere sight of him makes you want to feed him and take care of him. It’s an effective way of getting the audience on the protagonist’s side, and because The Machinist avoids exposition in favor of musically-cued thrills and noirish lighting, it’s also all we have. People keep asking Trevor if he’s alright, and he keeps saying yes, but he obviously is not. He’s thinner than most models and has a chronic case of insomnia. Something terrible has happened to this man, and thanks to a mysterious beginning, complete with disposing of bodies and mysterious post-it notes asking “Who are you?” we immediately want to know what.
Unfortunately, as the story begins to unfold, it becomes much harder to say on Trevor’s side. Bale compromises a good performance by overacting in crucial scenes, diluting the paranoia with melodrama, and the character himself is not the best person, either. Most of his incidents, including the workplace accident, are entirely his fault, and his tendency to overreact brings his own consequences upon him. So Anderson resorts to quick inserts of hazy flashbacks and emphasis on seemingly trivial points (there’s a cigarette lighter in this car, the car is going faster now, the clock reads 1:30 AM) to keep us interested. What is sacrificed is proficient storytelling. The sudden abandonment of one woman is an unmotivated change that the script has no desire to explain despite a desperate need to. Similarly, the landlord, for some reason, lets a tenant push her out of the house despite a strong smell and drip coming from his apartment, Trevor somehow ignores a bleeding refrigerator, and the last act of the film is a constant conspiracy-based bout of gaslighting that leaves the audience with nothing to do but try to solve the puzzle, a challenge that is far too easy for anyone who has seen any film like this one and that still leaves us far away from subtext. Your only choice is to accept the increasingly improbable developments in an anticipation of a big, expository reveal that retroactively makes all the overwrought directorial gimmicks feel like foreshadowing and makes the poorly written scenes easy to rationalize. Never mind that it’s poor closure for one story and another had already concluded unsatisfactorily, an answer that messes with your mind always wants a free pass.
Despite these flaws, The Machinist could have been saved; it creates mood very well, with an amusement park ride being particularly well done, and there are a fair share of attention-grabbing tracking shots that highlight occasionally flat compositions but despairing, well-colored cinematography. Scott Kosar’s script ensured that The Machinist was not going to be good, but it did not have to be bad; however, Anderson takes the material so seriously, by making point of Dostoevsky novels, creating mystery after mystery in the form of a gimmick (a game of hangman, a photograph) that it is begging you to closely analyze it for some great theme that is not there. The Machinist is a shallow version of far better psychological thrillers (most obviously Fight Club, from which this film borrows very heavily, and Memento, which is also an obvious influence)that demands to be taken as seriously as we take The Idiot or Crime And Punishment. As soon as it asks us to do that, the poor writing is less forgivable, genre tropes are exposed as clichés, and a point is made of The Machinist’s emptiness. It’s as emaciated as the character at its heart.