The Machinist (2004)

I caught up with this the other night after a couple of recommendations from friends. This is another of those films I think I should love, but end up merely admiring, feeling a bit distant from it (it is also one of those that you need to see before I ruin it for you here). I appreciate the craft involved here, from the storytelling to the photography to the Hitchcock-like (or is that Hermann?) score.

The film is most famous for the lengths star Christian Bale went to in preparing for the part, evidently shedding a third of his body weight to achieve a skeletal 120 pounds. It’s somewhat unfortunate that the film is known for this, because while it adds to the creepy atmosphere of the film, in simply focusing on his looks, one might miss out on the more interesting elements of the piece.

The Dostoevskian nature of the story stands out, as a man (Trevor) descends into his psyche, and he (as by proxy, we) begin to lose touch with reality. Early on, the film hints at the dream-like nature of many of his experiences. The clock is always stuck on 1:30 in the cafe. The mysterious Ivan just kind of appears out of nowhere, complete with thunderstorm in tow (which was digitally enhanced, it seemed, and therefore didn’t work as well as it should have). These oddities are a result of his insomnia, as Trevor notes that he hasn’t slept in a year. So then what is the source of the insomnia?

Well, that is the mystery of the film, and it is solved in a pretty satisfying way. Ultimately, we see that Trevor is an insomniac because he is wracked with guilt, over his part in a hit and run accident involving a child. Throughout the film, he is presented with a crossroad, three separate times. The first two, he chooses the path of darkness and concealment (the road to hell, as it’s called in the carnival ride), which drives him deeper into his guilt and further from the truth. However, while driving in his vehicle at the end, he chooses to go right, which is away from the airport and escape, and toward the police station, confession, and ultimately salvation. This then is Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment with the hooker, the guilt, and the added twist of not knowing the principle character had committed the crime.

And while the twist is interesting, and makes for a good ride, I think it ultimately takes away from the story. For a character like this to work, one has to be able to get into his head. He is the protagonist of the film, but we are always fairly distant from him because not even he knows why he is how he is. So, the film sets up this great atmosphere of mystery. It is accompanied by a great performance from Bale and a subdued score reminiscent of the great Bernard Hermann. With all these positives, I should love this film – yet because of the distance of the lead character, the payoff is not what it should be in a film like this – when you come through the darkness and find the light at the end of the tunnel.

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