Brad Anderson / USA / 2004
Christian Bales' visage scars one instantly in The Machinist: Skin pulled taut across vaguely recognisable features, the first impression is that Bale has concocted a gaunt impersonation of Ethan Hawke aided by slimming pills and a nervous disorder. Moments later Bale's character Trevor Resnick teases a prostitute by flexing his ribcage: each rib, every costal cartilage bulging with a cadaverous intimacy as he flexes his arms up behind himself. The human engine has been stripped bare of all that unnecessary cartilage, muscle and fat, and we fearfully watch a skeleton endure life.
Starting with Resnick's hollowed frame, The Machinist is concerned with mechanical function and form as applied to that (as yet) unclassifiable machine, the human psyche. Ostensively a twisted paranoid thriller, so horrific is Bale's figure, and worse his state of mind through the machinations of plot, that an audience can do little except gawp helplessly at this externalised mental anguish. A man claiming insomnia for the past year, Resnick's hyperactive never restive lifestyle 24/7 consumes him. Working with unspecified factory machines, accidents take turns to accumulate in his sleep-deprived existence. These machines, like Bale, are shorn of any cosmetic filling; functional devices used constantly except when maintenance is required. Machines with gears, cogs, conveyer belts, these are maws that the workers must plunge their limbs into regularly to ensure consistent operation. Accidents occur and these are brutal challenges between flesh and metal, accidents that Resnick causes. Someone or something is teasing him, gesticulating before a co-worker loses an arm and leaving a half completed game of Hangman on his fridge. Simple binary choices, such as deciding which path to take, accrue overbearing significance. The Machinist is a dark mystery where sanity is at stake.
Matching the drained 24-hour lifestyle director Brad Anderson de-saturates the colour palette and imposes harsh light upon his subjects. Stripped of zest, the human machine is stripped of colour, bleached clinically away just as Resnick compulsively bleaches his hands clean. Life has soured and it shows. Tapping along to the regular beats is a score reminiscent of a 1950s thriller and a Looney Tunes factory sequence. Strong on percussion and led by a theremin, the cold throb of machinery is mated with the hard paranoia of mental disease.
The premise is not dis-similar to any number of millennial North American paranoid thrillers set to the ubiquitous anonymous anodyne urban space (i.e. Fight Club), which must be a broadside to one's perceptions - as The Machinist was filmed in Spain. The twist is reasonable. Sickeningly effectively, Anderson and Bale expose mental disorder through direct and repulsive physical projection, a skulking mainline into anybody's sensibilities, akin to charities beaming images of starvation with donation requests.