An industrial machinist who hasn't slept in a year descends into a nightmarish internal hell of paranoia, guilt and delusion as he struggles to figure out what brought him to the edge of madness and who (if anyone) is plotting to push him over.
Does hell exist or do we create our own? This is the larger question screenwriter Scott Kosar asks as we watch machinist Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) stumble through his disintegrating world in this psychological thriller inspired by introspective mindbenders like Roman Polanski's The Tenant and Wim Wenders's The American Friend. From the moment we glimpse Trevor's freakishly emaciated frame, it's obvious that something is eating him away from the inside, the same thing responsible for his chronic insomnia. With apparently no Nytol or sleep aids available in his zip code, a strung-out Trevor continues working at a dangerous industrial facility until he causes an accident that costs a coworker his arm. When no one recalls the imposing bald man whom Trevor claims distracted him during the incident, he is ostracized by his coworkers and ultimately fired. He tries to find comfort in a sympathetic hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who has fallen in love with him, and a kind waitress and single mom (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), who works at his favorite all-night diner, but even they offer little solace as his paranoia mounts. What is real, what is memory, and what is imagined? Trevor clings to the last shreds of his sanity before he finally faces the truth about the only demon that matters--the one with the tortured face staring back at him in the mirror.
Christian Bale is one of the finest actors of his generation and, as evidenced by his total immersion in this role, the most committed. After having seen Bale's buff physique on display in movies like American Psycho and Equilibrium, he is a fright to behold after losing 63 pounds, with concave stomach, protruding ribs and hipbones jutting out like handlebars. ''I could make a whole other movie on the subject of guilt just from my experience of watching this man reduce himself to 120 pounds,'' says director Brad Anderson. Bale, who claims he simply stopped eating for the role, was attracted to the character because Trevor is a man stripped to his bare bones, literally and otherwise. ''Trevor is consumed with anxiety and lives with this intense fear that something awful is always just about to happen,'' says Bale. ''He fears he's the butt of some great cosmic joke. We all know how powerful a combination sleep deprivation and suppressed emotion can be. It takes him to places that are terrifying and monstrous, but also incredibly revealing.'' In supporting roles, Jennifer Jason Leigh revisits the damaged-goods gal she does so expertly, and Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon provides the only soothing visage in the film's grim landscape.
If you've seen Brad Anderson's creepy Session 9, you know the director has a talent for building a sense of quiet dread. The same can be said of The Machinist, where everything from a ticking clock to a hangman game on Post-It notes starts to seem menacing. Inspired by the camera angles of Hitchcock, the surrealism of German Expressionist films like Nosferatu as well as film noir, Anderson constructs a muted, washed-out, shadowy world for his ghostly main man to haunt. ''I wanted the movie to feel out of time, other-worldly, from a different era or place,'' says Anderson. ''You never quite get a grip on where or when in time things are happening and that was intentional. It's a modern Kafkaesque world, a nightmare dreamscape that draws horror from everyday existence.''
This unsettling puzzle-box film reveals itself in pieces and unfolds at a slow, methodical pace. Watching someone on the verge of a psychotic break from reality might not be everyone's idea of a good time, but fans of complex psychological thrillers like Repulsion and Memento will be game for this demented fever dream.