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Before the dark knight came the skeleton
A region 2 DVD review of THE MACHINIST by Lord Summerisle – DVD details by Slarek
 

Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) works in a factory. He hasn't slept for a year. He goes to work by day and shares the rest of his time with two women, a prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and an airport café waitress (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon). Into this simple, sleepless life, after a particularly grizzly accident at work, a mysterious man called Ivan appears.

From this incredibly simple narrative foundation writer Scott Koser weaves a complex thread of twists and turns that makes for a mind-bending ride into the unraveling psyche of Reznik. The frailty in the mind of Reznik is externalised by Bale's physical state, it would be impossible to write anything on this film without commenting on the staggering weight loss programme Christian Bale embarked upon for this role (from 183 pounds to just 120), going above and beyond the call of duty here, and to great effect.

I'm a sucker for a well-written piece of plot heavy, conceptual narrative, and this is very much in that vein. Although, where some such films lose out on characterisation due to the driving force of the story, The Machinist sticks like a limpet to Reznik's psyche. This is not only down to a good script but also good direction in the hands of Brad Anderson, who's biggest impact in the industry prior to this film was the hit and miss Session 9. There's something resoundingly Hitchcockian (and I do not use that term freely!) about the whole thing. The subjective narrative. The sense that straight from the off you're plunging into dangerous waters. There's no safe domain. From the first beautifully murky-focused shot you are dragged into a dark world distorted by chronic insomnia. Reznik wonders from one horrible shock to the next, in terms of plot points this film is off the chart. The more confused he becomes, the more the audience are in turn. We share the journey every step of the way with Reznik and via the fairly common, yet well used, narrative devise of placing a scene from near the end of the movie at the beginning, one is constantly found wondering how he will end up in that situation, thus heightening the drama, and believe me it's not easy to predict. But where this is different from Hitchcock's plots, and most classical narrative, is that it doesn't start at a point of equilibrium. It begins at a kind of stable disruption, the man hasn't slept for a year. Why? It's the slow unraveling (this is a key theme in the film and will recur in this review) of this that brings Hitchcock to mind. I get the sense that Koser had great fun writing the script and laying his traps, and even though I believe one of the great strengths of this movie is in the writing I feel many of these ideas have been borrowed from elsewhere. There is a good amount of dry comedy included to ease the strain of an otherwise very dark feature, and Bale executes it with precision, having had practice of a sort in American Psycho, another piece of twisting head-fuckery (a lesser used technical term!).

Anyway, when it comes down to it this film is a three-man show; writer (Koser), actor (Bale), and its up to the director (Anderson) to marry the former two and come up with something special, which in part he has. At first I thought I was watching a David Fincher movie, the dark, dingy mise-en-scene and gaunt, dry, protagonist, not unlike Edward Norton in Fight Club. Yet when the first scene unraveled (like the piece of carpet featured in it that holds all the secrets, unraveling just like Reznik himself), I got that Hitchcock feeling there might be something a little more special to come. Then the way Bale slumped and shifted about the frame like a spectral shell reminded me somewhat of Ralph Fiennes in the brilliantly understated Cronenberg film, Spider. (Be mindful of the films I'm listing, I'll come back to them later.) By this time I was wondering if this guy had anything of his own to throw in or whether he suffered from a harsher strain of the same thing as Mr Koser and the film was to be an amalgam of obvious influences. In the most part I would have to say that's what it is, the voice of an auteur did not speak to me. Yet it is perfectly crafted and beautifully shot. How much input Anderson had as opposed to Koser in the placing of key iconography and motifs I do not know, but their placements are succinct and function well when the narrative reveal comes to fruition.

Before I go onto my major misgivings about the film I'd like to say a little more about Christian Bale's performance. I am a great fan of Bale's career to date, and his intensely unfaltering dedication to the medium, in my mind, puts him up there with Robert DeNiro in his heyday. Obviously his physical manipulation puts one in mind of DeNiro's similar challenge for his portrayal of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, although Bale's is more extreme and he manages to exude a strange kind of black hole like anti-presence when in frame. Although, in order for this film to work there needed to be a beating heart at its centre. Someone the audience could relate to, identify with and really buy into for the plot process to work and for viewers to get the impact of it. There's often something sterile about films with similar psychological revalationary narratives due to the concept over-riding the characters, as previously mentioned. By Bale, almost literally, living and breathing the character, he prevents this from happening. Every frame assigned to him he is Reznik therefore we are Reznik. This is capitalised on by Anderson giving him a lot of screen time and shrewdly trusting Bale's ability. Subtle nuances in the writing allows Bale a foot in the door to create an emotional link with the audience and the two guiding lights of Leigh's slightly cliched tart with a heart, Stevie, and Sanchez-Gijon's waitress, Marie, create a sounding board that secures a humanism to Reznik without being sentimental. We can see the man is fragile by his physique and the plot is at one with his mind, but we can only really see an emotionally identifiable fragility to him when he is with these women, providing us with the well-rounded protagonist that is crucial to the necessary suspension of disbelief.

(Note: If you have not seen this film it is advisable you skip to the final paragraph as what follows contains spoilers)

It's not all positive though. On a plot heavy piece like this the entire film hinges on an end pay off that must justify the means to its conclusion and I believe that the twist the plot is so delicately resting upon has unfortunately become a common one in recent psychological thrillers. The films mentioned previously are among my examples of this as well as the superbly crafted non-linear masterpiece that is Christopher Nolan's Memento, a film that contains some of the stronger narrative elements of The Machinist. I would say Fight Club pioneered the genre that Memento went on to explore and The Machinist is yet another take on the employing of subjective psyche within the diagesis of the film, in other words Reznik's distorted mental state (Ivan) is projected into the established reality of the piece in the same way to Fight Club as personified by Tyler Durden (Koser borrowing narrative from Fight Club as Anderson has with it's mise-en-scene), with memory confusion issues signposted by iconography similar to Memento. So, with this explored, it is easy to see how I was disappointed with the end result of the thrilling journey as it was one I have seen before and done as well if not a little better.

In conclusion, despite my qualms and mild disappointment I think this is a film worth seeing on the strength of Bale's performance alone and the process of joining the winding journey through Reznik's world is well worth arriving at a less than impressive destination.

sound and vision

Framed at 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the transfer on Tartan's disk is a pretty good one, reproducing well the stripped-down colour and steely blue tint of Reznik's world and Xavi Giménez's moody but still darkly naturalistic lighting. Detail is good, sharpness is impressive (although signs of enhancement are evident on close inspection) and compression artefacts, though sometimes present in areas of one colour, are rarely distracting. A largely sound job.

As usual with recent Tartan releases, there are three mixes on offer: Dolby 2.0 stereo, Dolby 5.1 surround and DTS 5.1 surround. This is a fairly subtly mix, with even the DTS track whispering rather than shouting, and to nice effect, with the factory noise and score coming at you from all directions, but never in a disruptive way. The 2.0 mix is also noteworthy, and front separation is more noticeable here.

extra features

Tartan have supplemented the solid picture and sound with a handful of decent extra features.

The Brad Anderson Commentary is a good one, with the director providing plenty of background on the making of the film, and on his approach to Scott Koser's screenplay, which, we are informed, was written as a spec script when Koser was just out of film school. Particularly interesting are the problems of shooting in Barcelona, a situation created by the impossibility of funding the film in the US, something Anderson sees as something of a comment on the present state of US independent cinema. Bale's extraordinary weight loss is inevitably covered, as are the problems it created for the actor in emotionally demanding scenes, and the Hitchcockian influence is confirmed, not least in Roque Baõs's Bernard Herrmann-like score. There are no dead patches at all, and the "I love this shot" factor is at a sensible level. An informative and interesting commentary.

The UK disk exclusive Interview with Brad Anderson (25'24") is a single shot conversation with the director, broken up by textual questions (one of which could do with re-writing, another of which is clearly not what Anderson was asked, but there you go). This does repeat some of the ground covered in the commentary, but not much, largely being an expansion on point covered briefly there or new information. The Polanski influence may not be surprising, but is interesting, as is the work of Val Lewton. Anderson starts to stumble badly for words later in the interview, but on the whole this is interesting stuff. It is shot on digital video and framed anamorphic 16:9.

Making the Machinist (actually titled, a tad pompously, The Machinist: Breaking the Rules – 25'20") is a useful collection of making-of footage and EPK-style interviews with cast and crew members. Worthwhile to catch Anderson directing from a gurney after he put his back out, and to hear Bale, asked how he managed to lose so much weight, say simply, "I didn't eat."

There are 8 Deleted Scenes, though about half of these are recuts of existing scenes. 2 o them have optional commentary by Anderson. They vary from about 45 seconds 2 and a half minutes.

summary

A flawed but still intriguing movie that is worth seeing alone for the atmospheric photography and Bale's extraordinary central performance. Tartan's disk is a good one, with solid picture and sound and some engaging extra features. Whether it will score high on replay value is another matter, which could make the difference between buying and renting.

The Machinist

Spain/USA 2004
98 mins
director
Brad Anderson
starring
Christian Bale
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Aitana Sánchez-Jijón
John Sharian
Michael Ironside

DVD details
region 2
video .
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Director's commentary
Interview with Brad Anderson
Making The Machinist featurette
Deleted scenes
distributor
Tartan
review posted
8 August 2005

See all of Lord Summerisle's reviews