Sometimes all the extra-textual chatter around a story can keep you from giving it a fair reading -- or from even knowing much about it in the first place. Take, for instance, the 2004 psychological thriller The Machinist. I'd heard of it. I'd heard that it starred Christian Bale, he of The Dark Knight and American Psycho fame. And I'd heard he lost a lot of weight for the role, gotten thin to the point of becoming downright skeletal. But for the life of me, I couldn't find anyone who actually knew what the movie was about. My solution? Forget Wikipedia and track down the DVD.
Trevor Reznik isn't a healthy man. He doesn't snort coke or have some wasting disease as his coworkers suspect. No, Trevor's problem is that he hasn't slept for a full year. Whenever unconsciousness looms, some circumstance conspires to jerk him awake. A copy of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot slipping from his hands as he sits on the couch. A waitress pouring coffee at the local airport's all-night eatery. His truck's cigarette lighter snapping on as he leans against the headrest. Sleeplessness has whittled the flesh from his bones, leaving him looking more like a survivor of Dachau than a skilled manufacturing worker. Yet while insomnia troubles Trevor, it isn't his biggest problem. A guy named Ivan has appeared at work, a bull of man with an easy grin and a mocking tone. While on the floor one day, he distracts Trevor during a routine recalibration, and the resulting accident nearly costs a coworker his life. Bad stuff. But what's worse is that no one else seems to think Ivan exists ...
Perceptive viewers will quickly notice that director Brad Anderson freighted nearly every scene of The Machinist with import. Most every lingering shot or bit of dialogue has a reason for its inclusion. There's a reason why Trevor can never seem to find hand soap and therefore scrubs up with bleach and lye. There's a reason why Ivan is thick-necked and thick-limbed, girded about the waist with a layer of fat. There's a reason why Trevor has odd associations with fishing trips, aviator shades and a certain highway route number. There's a reason why Dostoyevsky features prominently, although the final scenes made me think Crime and Punishment might've proven a wiser choice than The Idiot. You get the idea: No one could describe the movie anything other than intricate. But that very braininess becomes a liability. It takes a long time to weave that much texture into a film's fabric, and The Machinist moves as slow and cold as something living on the bottom of the sea. And the ending, well, the big twist satisfies without actually surprising. Perhaps it's understandable, then, that Bale's performance eclipsed the movie itself.
(Picture: CC 2011 by Maitham Photography)