FOR A WHILE, ‘The Machinist’ compels its audience to reexamine the structures of our world, from minute letterforms of mysterious notes to the nearly alien protuberance of water towers. Or the reptilian bristling of a human skeleton beneath its husk of flesh. Our specimen is Trevor, a factory machinist played by Christian Bale, who beyond his trademark mental focus brings a physicality that is simply harrowing. But not in the traditional way we think of when actors ‘beef up’ for a role; rather, he is wasting away, frail and dangerously emaciated. Repulsive, even. But in a way calculated, precise, and for more than mere shock value. His gauntness is revealed explicitly and borne witness to by other characters, as well as a pillar of Post-It notes descending down his wall like a march through the layers of a personal hell we cannot yet fathom. The body incidental to Christian Bale separates from the actor and becomes a physical sketch of Trevor’s mind: a rigid tool, a flagging system of levers and pulleys on the verge of seizing up. The cause of this decline is not initially explained, much less even known, and rooting it out becomes ‘The Machinist’s sole focus.
Bale has a compulsion towards dualist roles: Trevor is a shadow of Patrick Bates, his sociopath murderer in ‘American Psycho’, and both preceded his epic arc as Batman in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy reboot. Bale is no less arresting here, aptly juggling the increasing demands of compulsion, apathy, subconscious suppression and obsession, as well as making Trevor more a tragic character than a pitiful one. We see, can gauge, and connect together the man he is, was, and is becoming—each wildly different from the next and yet still fathomable. In pitting Trevor’s mordant subconscious against the ennui and increasing derangement of his conscious mind, ‘The Machinist’ also raises uncomfortable psychological questions rarely addressed in the genre, even as it revels in many of the most basic horror tropes. Can masochism be productive? When does the self-preservation instinct lead not to survival but to decay? Though the framing of these questions is hardly erudite (blood seeping out of refrigerators, etc.), it’s sufficient to elevate ‘The Machinist’ above typical psycho/slasher horror fare.
Our Plato along this left-hand path is Ivan, a substitute shift worker Trevor meets while venting his frustration alone in the parking lot outside his job. Ivan is a singular presence: shaven bullet-shaped head, a shark’s grin, cowboy’s cocksure swagger, and the meaty frame of a football lineman. One of his hands was mangled in an accident and now boasts transplanted toes for fingers. He is always cool, always smiling, but never comforting. Trevor is the only man who can see him. Based on decades of such setups in cinema the audience instantly assumes that Ivan is in Trevor’s mind. And we are right, of course. But ‘The Machinist’ never disguised this fact (from us, at least; Trevor himself is more perplexed), and thus must make itself intriguing in other ways. We ask not whether what Trevor sees is real, but rather why. It’s a root too rarely unearthed in most psychological thrillers, which are often content to gloss over the origin of psychosis to spend more time reveling in its fallout.
The counter to Ivan—unreal but brutally concrete—is Stevie—real but all too fragile. She is Trevor’s prostitute, whom he comes to care for and depend upon for solace as his world begins to crumble. In turn she loves him, grasps onto him as an escape from her downward spiral, and for a brief interlude they seem at peace. Nearly happy. Crucially, a real sense of tenderness is created between the two, such that we believe Trevor’s retreat into her arms even as he falls away from everything else. If we can’t empathize with his pitiful state directly, at least she acts as a conduit for our compassion. Amidst all the other tangles that eventually overmatch ‘The Machinist’s ambition, the knot of Trevor and Stevie holds fast.
Those tangles are not loose ends, though. All the relevant pieces of ‘The Machinist’ come together in a logical way, such that we needn’t fuss over abandoned subplots or affected mystery over what really happened. ‘The Machinist’, like its name, fits together cleanly and effectively into a full cycle. So how then is it overmatched? Simply put: clarity is not always quality. After posing a sly, insidious question and spreading a dank miasma, ‘The Machinist’ wields neither tool to full effect and comes off the worse for failing to achieve its potential. Moreover, enough of its endgame is telegraphed early that the few mysteries left till later end up having little leverage.
The film begins in obscure darkness, stark chiaroscuro, and hazy window-looking views that meticulously recreate Trevor’s mental fog. Yet the visual arc of his character, even as he’s pulled into revelatory madness and despair, is actually decreasingly bleak: the sky loses its apocalyptic hues, his world seems less a nightmarish nowhere-land prison and more a sunny California suburb. We find him in darkness and leave him in light. This reversal makes sense for the character but can leave the audience dissatisfied and imbalanced. The score also teases us into ambivalence, at points melancholic and sparse, at others so instructive with its spooky tip-toeing or garish violin sighs that one struggles to give Trevor’s nightmare the weight Bale’s performance deserves.
Based upon a series of creeping realizations, the film features many slow shots of a gape-mouthed Trevor noticing something close to the camera, approaching it tentatively, and grappling to fathom its meaning. Bale makes the shot work repeatedly, leaving the audience uncomfortably curious about what is sitting beside us out in the darkness, but the technique tires as the plot’s trajectory become clear. Too, the flashbacks and frequent cues to the audience don’t always focus on the most relevant material. Rehashing old content for new emphasis tends to be didactic anyway, but if it must be done, then better to return to such fraught episodes as the Route 666 carnival ride (which we come to recognize as the linchpin of Trevor’s psyche) than the known quantity of a face in a fishing trophy photograph. And after meticulously establishing each implicit point of tension, the full crux of Trevor’s affliction is revealed in a flat rush, as if finishing a game by rote instead of inspiration. And that is ‘The Machinist’ in brief: a powerful engine engaged, but idling.