Needs a Tuneup

Great performances can't save 'The Machinist' from its formulaic storyline and bad spacing

I think my favorite kind of movie is the kind in which there's a central mystery, and the characters don't even realize that this mystery exists, except that strange things keep happening that imply that some larger, undiscovered element is affecting everything they do. The latest attempt at this sort of film is director Brad Anderson and writer Scott Kosar's The Machinist.

This movie contains all the essential elements: a self-absorbed loner seems to be haunted by a strange man with mystical powers. People, places and things all look tremendously ugly. Unnatural occurrences are only noticed by the lead character. The music is slow and heavy. Time seems to unravel. It's basically Donnie Darko with more machines.

And yet, in spite of this slavish adherence to formula, The Machinist is not a great movie. Or maybe that's "because of this slavish adherence to formula." There's really nothing you haven't seen here, except for the sight of Christian Bale starved down to about 130 pounds.

Bale plays Trevor Reznik, the titular machinist, who, unsurprisingly, works in a machine shop. What is surprising about Mr. Reznik is that he hasn't slept in a year. He also appears to have not eaten in that time, and Bale seems to take great pride in showing off the bones that poke through his emaciated frame.

It shows a real dedication to the part that Bale was willing to starve himself for art, but he should really have looked more closely at the script before committing to ruining his health for it.

There's nothing terribly wrong with the story; the problem is the way it's presented. The clues to the central mystery don't show up in enough force early enough in the picture, and then they become tremendously obvious all of the sudden in the second half. A more experienced director would have spaced things out a bit more. Instead, there's a very slow opening wherein nothing of note seems to occur except that you get to watch a guy failing to fall asleep. In blue tint. Eerie!

When the mystery comes into play, and the clues are arrayed, the story is actually not bad. It's just that it takes so long to get to the story--and it's so rushed when it occurs--that it's pretty much ruined.

Even if director Anderson had edited his film so that things were properly spaced, Machinist wouldn't have been a very original movie. Cinematographer Xavi Gimenez takes all of his shots from other films (there's some obvious swipes from Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street) and then adopts that annoying modern quirk of tinting everything blue. The script is a mixture of Lost Highway, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Memento, plus a few other film noir classics.

On the other hand, originality isn't a necessary ingredient of good filmmaking, and when all of the derivative elements come together, Machinist has some excellent moments. Jennifer Jason Leigh, who's been underutilized of late, plays a prostitute for the 4,674th time in her career, thus breaking Jamie Lee Curtis' record. She does a bang-up job (no pun intended!), adding a human element to Bale's unearthly performance.

Bale really is good in the lead. Maybe too good. He clearly took the part very seriously, and his acting, while not in the naturalist tradition, conveys a great deal of character. But I get the feeling that he took way too much time out of his life, and way too much meat off his bones, when he really should have been getting ready for his role in next year's Batman movie.

I wish someone had taken this film and re-edited it, because it would have made a pretty entertaining 90 minutes. Not much would really need to be cut; it would just need to be re-arranged so that it could convey during its first 30 minutes that something of interest is going on. And, in fact, something of interest is going on; it just isn't going on in an interesting way.

Still, if you like Fritz Lang, David Lynch and James M. Cain, and things that are tinted blue, you might enjoy Machinist. However, in anticipation of the first half of the film, I'd suggest you bring a book and a small flashlight.

Go See DiGiovanna's Movie

James DiGiovanna and Carey Burtt, co-directors of A Forked World, will attend a meet-and-greet at the Red Garter Bar & Grill, just west of the Loft, on Friday, Dec. 3, at 5 p.m. They will introduce the film at 7 p.m. at the Loft and attend a Q&A after the screening. Please note: You must be 17 (and have a valid ID) to attend the screening of A Forked World.

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The Machinist is not showing in any theaters in the area.

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