The new Batman goes beyond the call of duty in Brad Anderson's all-consuming The Machinist
In order to play drill press operator Trevor Reznik in The Machinist, Christian Bale lost 63 pounds off his brawny frame. This is an insane act of dedication even by the standards of De Niro’s Raging Bull or, more recently, Charlize Theron’s Monster or Renée Zellweger’s Bridget Jones; despite what entertainment TV shows may claim, gaining a few curves is less impressive than losing a third of your body weight. Bale, the underrated actor who cold-bloodedly sliced through our heartstrings in 2000′s American Psycho (and soon to be the new Batman), is definitely employee of the month: His self-sacrifice catapults The Machinist from slightly creepy seductive art-house thriller into another realm entirely.
Reznik is a blue collar, good-ol’-boy factory worker whose body, despite consuming buckets of greasy fried chicken, is devouring itself from within. His only two friends are Stevie, a somnolent prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with a special affection for her most regular client, and Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), a waitress who befriends him at the airport diner where he goes every night to wait out the hours with coffee and a piece of pie. Trevor hasn’t slept for a year, you see, and his unrelenting wakefulness is starting to cause problems. In his dismal studio apartment, adorned only with a poster from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, an active game of hangman on Post-it notes suddenly starts creeping along the wall. Then, his refrigerator begins to bleed. Are these waking hallucinations, or something more? Trevor’s attentiveness in the machine room starts to ebb, and his co-workers’ limbs are no longer safe around all those grinding, mashing gears. Before long, he makes a new friend at work that no one else can see: Ivan (John Sharian), a bald, grinning golem who cruises the streets after work in a ’69 Firebird, taunting Trevor into high-speed chases that he can’t win.
So what’s eating Trevor, anyway? His world is an industrial-lot greyscale nightmare threaded through with intermittent screams of red and punctuated by frissons of theremin and revving engines. Reznik’s emaciated form insinuates itself into every washed-out, dismally beautiful scene; he’s more like a shiver of human mercury than a man. Discomfort builds on displacement, to a symphonic climax by which point those watching want to scratch themselves free of their skin. Then, suddenly, the gears of the mystery grind to a screaming halt. By that point, though, there’s hardly any point, after all the fun we had getting there.
Director Brad Anderson (Next Stop Wonderland, Happy Accidents, Session 9) favours the slow reveal à la Hitchcock’s Vertigo rather than the quick switchback, the specialty of The Sixth Sense‘s M. Night Shyamalan. In an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, Anderson was insouciant about throwing out "spoilers" (the hated felony, as delineated by basement bloggers with time to waste on these things, in which a reviewer – or the filmmaker himself – reveals even the most trivial of plot points in the process of carrying on an actual discussion of the movie).
"It’s not that I have a ‘thing’ for the end reveal," says Anderson, whose last movie, Session 9, contained a similar drawstring plot.
"I’m a sucker for movies like Don’t Look Now, or Jacob’s Ladder, or Memento. To me, Shyamalan’s movies are a bit too broad. The twist is more twilight zone; it comes out of nowhere. I like it when the end payoff is more of an internal epiphany."
In The Machinist, our eyes are loyal to this washed-out world of confabulation, so much so that Reznik’s delusions are our own. Is there really a conspiracy against him, or is he himself the bad guy to watch out for?
"Audiences are very savvy, so you have to throw more at them," says Anderson. "They’ve seen The Sixth Sense, they’ve had the ‘Oh my God, I’m dead’ moment at the end. They might be entertaining the possibility that [Reznik] is in purgatory, and to deflect that, you have to throw red herrings at them all the time."
Still, though, Anderson wanted to do more than offer cheap thrills. More than anything, the world he built – largely without special effects – is a waking nightmare; the camera lingers ravenously on every detail of a blue-collar horrorscape so thick with atmosphere, you’d think Reznik would be able to get fat on mood alone.
"In some ways this is more interesting to me than the plot; it’s much more challenging to me as a filmmaker," says Anderson. "Tone and feeling is so much more of a subjective thing. I wanted to create something that was disconcerting, but not outright horror. We’re not going for the shockers – rather the creepy moments in between, where you’re not sure what’s happening."
Other than filter and film stock noodling, and the jittery musical score by Roque Baños, Anderson’s most effective cinematic trick by far was Christian Bale. And make no mistake, this is no key-light magic – he really is that skinny. At a screening full of jaded press and industry folk in Toronto, a shot of him bare to the waist in front of a bathroom mirror was enough to elicit gasps of disgust.
"In the script [by Scott Kosar, who specializes in remakes of old horror movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Amityville Horror], Reznik is described as a walking scarecrow," says Anderson. "But I was thinking, ‘Aah, we’ll put him in some baggy clothes, shoot him in a certain kind of light, he’ll look a little thinner, maybe lose 10 pounds.’ I would never ask any actor to do what he did; there’s no way. Sixty-three pounds is well beyond the call of duty.
"When Christian stepped off the plane in Barcelona, I was like, holy shit, he looks like an Auschwitz victim or something… I was also weirdly thrilled, because I knew that in one shot, I could capture the torment this guy has put himself through."
So how did he do it?
"It’s very simple, you just stop eating. Either that, or keep a really nasty secret."