Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) works as a machine operator at a factory and spends his spare time obsessively cleaning his apartment and sleeping with a hooker called Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Trevor's life is slowly falling apart – he barely eats, hasn't slept for a year and someone is leaving sinister post-it notes on his fridge. Not only that, but he is being followed by a mysterious man called Ivan who may or may not exist. What can it all mean?
The Machinist gained a lot of press for the dramatic weight-loss that star Christian Bale underwent for the role – shedding over 60lbs – and his emaciated appearance haunts the entire film. Even clothed, Bale's cheekbones and hunched, skeletal frame reveal a man who is literally wasting away, and the sight of his naked torso is shocking – ribs, shoulder blades and even his spine threatening to burst through his pale, stretched skin. But Bale's performance is more than just a physical transformation, and his soft, sad voice and haunted eyes evoke great sympathy for a man we actually know almost nothing about.
Director Brad Anderson's last film was the highly effective asylum shocker Session 9, and The Machinist is similarly menacing, as past, buried horrors return to shatter the calm of the present. Scott Kosar's script reveals itself slowly, as Reznik's life is shown in precise, eerie detail, his job, his strangely intimate relationship with Stevie, and his nightly pilgrimage to an out-of-town airport, where he is drawn to coffee bar waitress Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). It is when Reznik, distracted by the appearance of the mysterious Ivan, causes a horrific accident at work that his life truly starts to crumble. Reznik is first convinced that his workmates are playing cruel pranks on him, but as things start to get increasingly weird, it seems that the answers may lie closer to home.
Anderson shoots in colourless, saturated tones, and succeeds in capturing the dislocated world in which the sleep-deprived Reznik exists. Not that much really happens, but the pay-off is well handled; there's no great 'shock' revelation, but the film is all the better for it, and unlike the similarly themed Memento, it is clever enough to be more than just a twist for its own sake. The performances also hit the right notes throughout – is anyone truly whom they seem? Why are both Stevie and Marie so drawn to this strange, intense man? Can Miller, the now one-armed victim of Reznik's negligence (nicely played by a bearded Michael Ironside), really have forgiven him? If Ivan doesn't really exist, how can Reznik have found a picture of him and another workmate fishing together?
Anderson was forced to make The Machinist in Spain after he failed to find financing the US, and you can understand why potential investors may have been put off. The film is all menace and atmosphere but with little in the way of actual thrills. But it's also a well made, haunting film that works on various levels – horror movie, twisted love story, study of loneliness and mental fragility – and plays on the mind for some time afterwards.
American writer and director who made the comedies Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents, before scoring a cult hit in 2001 with the horror Session 9. The similarly spooky The Machinist and solid Hitchcockian thriller Transsiberian followed before television took up most of his time.