'The Machinist' is consumed by existential questions
Though he suffered serious injury during the filming of The Passion of the Christ, James Caviezel did not allow himself to be actually crucified. But Robert De Niro deliberately gained more than 50 pounds in order to portray retired boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. That dangerous standard for maniacal Method acting was matched this year in Super Size Me when Morgan Spurlock stuffed himself three times a day for a month at McDonald's. If Spurlock is the virtuoso of cinematic bulimia, Christian Bale makes art out of anorexia. In order to play Trevor Reznik, the emaciated machinist in Brad Anderson's new film, Bale reportedly trimmed his weight from 190 to 130 pounds. An apple a day might keep the doctor away, but that ration plus a solitary can of tuna was Bale's entire daily diet, and it might have attracted the mortician instead.
At National Machine, the factory where Trevor works as a tool operator, his supervisor observes, "I think you look like toasted shit." And on two separate occasions a different woman remarks, "If you were any thinner, you wouldn't exist." The Machinist is an existential drama about a man who has not slept in a year and is haunted by the question posed by a phantom co-worker: "Who are you?"
The Machinist is a disturbing work not simply because of gaunt Trevor's macabre appearance, especially after he is hit by a car. The film begins with and later returns to a nocturnal sequence in which Trevor appears to wrap a corpse in a rug and then tries tossing it into the sea. But even more radically unsettling is the way that The Machinist violates a viewer's basic trust that what appears on the screen is actually happening within the universe of the film. It is not until the end that we realize that entire scenes and characters are merely figments of the alienated machinist's overwrought, guilt-burdened imagination. And it is not until the end that the elaborate machinery of the clever screenplay is exposed. By that point, what fuels the engine of the plot seems less important than the acid portrait of a working man who is starving for connections and the truth about himself. •