Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Review - The Machinist

Stories of method acting madness are the stuff of cinematic legend. Robert De Niro piled on the pounds to play Jake La Motta, Daniel Day-Lewis spent the whole shoot of My Left Foot in a wheelchair while Robin Williams traumatised a number of terminally ill children in praparation for Patch Adams (possibly). Now you can add Christian Bale to the list of actors who have suffered for their art. For his role as a paranoid insomniac in The Machinist, Bale lost 63 pounds, a third of his body weight.

The first sight of Bale is startling, he looks almost skeletal. His ribs and shoulder blades poke through his skin, his eyes appear to be hollowed into his skull. It’s a shocking and disturbing transformation. For a while it has the effect of taking the viewer out of the movie; I wasn’t concerned about the fate of the lead character Trevor Reznick because I was more worried for the health of Bale himself.

Anyway, when I did manage to fix my attention on events surrounding Bale, I found The Machinist to be an intriguing and stylish psychological thriller. Trevor Reznik (Bale) is a factory worker who hasn’t slept in a year. Still, he manages to get by, although his life is a rather lonely existence, with his visits to local prostitute Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and some late-night banter with a waitress (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) at an airport diner acting as his only real links with the rest of humanity. The two ladies worry about his appearance; “if you were any thinner,” they both tell him at different points, “you wouldn’t exist”.

Soon a mysterious third party enters the equation. Ivan (John Sharian) is a new employee at the factory and he engages the hesitant Reznik in conversation one afternoon. Later, Reznik gets distracted by Ivan at one of the machines and causes a terrible accident in which a co-worker loses a hand. But none of his colleagues seem to know who Ivan is, and strange things start happening to Reznik; not least when he is almost killed at one of the machines himself. Is he the subject of a conspiracy cooked up by his co-workers, or is he losing his mind?

So he sets out to prove Ivan exists, while also attempting to hang on to his own sanity, and the film becomes a highly enjoyable, if derivative, thriller. Writer Scott Kosar and director Brad Anderson take great delight in wrong-footing the audience as they set up the puzzle of what happened to Reznik and they manage to create some memorable moments along the way. The horrific fairground ride, a bizarre hit-and-run and Reznik’s near-death experience at the factory are the standout sequences and all are confidently handled by Anderson. Throughout the film Anderson, helped by the stark and moody cinematography and evocative score, successfully creates a bleak and haunting atmosphere.

In addition to the fine direction, the cast do their best to make the film work. Leigh is reliable as ever, she may be typecast as a kind-hearted hooker but she does it well, and Gijon gives a sweet performance as the other woman in Reznik’s life. John Sharian, with his unnerving grin and imposing presence, is impressive as the mysterious Ivan, but this film belongs to Christian Bale. It’s not just his beyond-the-call-of-duty weight loss that marks this performance out, it’s the utter conviction, dedication and intensity he brings to the role. He perfectly conveys Reznik’s increasingly crazed state of mind, giving an incredibly authentic and sympathetic display.

His bravura performance holds the movie together when the various contrivances of the plot threaten to spin out of control. Kosar and Anderson can’t quite manage to keep it up right to the finish line and the film definitely starts to drag a little as they attempt to tie up loose ends. The twist, when it arrives, isn’t that much of a surprise and it certainly is disappointing to see the film wrap itself up so neatly in the final five minutes.

Still, I wasn’t bothered too much by it because I never really felt that the plot was the filmmakers’ main priority. The Machinist is more concerned with placing the viewer in the mind of a deeply troubled man and it succeeds admirably. The film is a dark and often unpredictable journey and, thanks to Bale‘s expert performance, it’s one you won’t forget in a hurry.