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The Best Movie You Never Saw: The Machinist

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at THE MACHINIST.

Spoilers may follow.

THE STORY: THE MACHINIST tells the grim tale of a man who, haunted by a mystery, hasn't slept in a year. As his world turns against him and a pursuer closes in, Trevor will be forced to face the truth he has denied for so long.

THE PLAYERS: director Brad Anderson. Writer Scott Kosar. Actors Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Sharian, and Michael Ironside. Cinematographer Xavi Gimenez (TRANSSIBERIAN, AGORA, "Penny Dreadful").

I think you could say that there were certain directors that were haunting the set... and Hitchcock was certainly the pre-eminent presence. Scott Kosar and I both felt that we were channelling a Hitchcock film, through the music, the Bernard Herrmann-style score, the look and the feel. We wanted to make something that felt weirdly timeless, like it wasn't about any particular place or time, and had a very old-fashioned feel to it. - Brad Anderson

THE HISTORY: After writing and directing several films of his own, Brad Anderson (SESSION 9, HAPPY ACCIDENTS) wanted to try his hand at bringing someone else's work to life. So he found a Scott Kosar (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE [2003 remake]) and this script, and as soon as Christian Bale read it he was on board 100%. But that didn't make the film an easy sell to producers or distributors, with funding eventually coming from Spain where Anderson's past work had played very well. So the film, written to be set and shot in Los Angeles, ended up using Barcelona as its base of operations.

Bale famously lost over 60 pounds for the part, putting his final weight at 120 - though this was not the initial intention for author or director, as Kosar had written in weights to reflect his own experience of being 5'6" man. But Bale wanted the challenge and went down the whole way, subsisting on a diet that consisted of apples, coffee, cigarettes, the occasional can of tuna, and the even less occasional whiskey. Meanwhile, Anderson injured himself to the degree that he had to direct most of the film from a gurney. But the show went on, and THE MACHINIST premiered at Sundance in January of 2004 and went wide in October of that same year. A world total of $8 million was brought in against a budget of $5 million and, nearly twelve years later, here we are.

... the director of photography, Spanish cinematographer Xavi Gimenez, was great. His whole palette is virtually un-illuminated. He likes working in the dark literally (laughs). And I really liked that idea of seeing how far we could push it and just keeping it very noir... That is sort of what we intended; to keep it not just dark for the sake of creating scares, but dark to create a real sense of paranoia and dread... Just something looming there in the darkness, we were playing with that. Also I just wanted to make the imagery really graphic and simple in keeping with the idea that the locations were very generic. We wanted the feeling of this guy’s world, the look of the film, the compositions and such all that to just feel very symmetrical and generic and not of this world. It needed to feel almost dream like in some way. - Brad Anderson

WHY IT'S GREAT: "Don't worry. No one ever died of insomnia."

But are there fates worse than death? Organized religion will tell us so. The tortured may tell us so. And Trevor Reznik is a tortured man, who at the beginning of this dark and strange film is most certainly a tortured soul. Named after Nine Inch Nails front man and film composer Trent Reznor, he lives the lie of a life hidden, the underneath tainted to such a degree by a mysterious deed that the very world around him is distorted and disturbed by his insistence on denying his truth. It’s a masterful deconstruction of one man’s desperate construction, alternately built with and pulled apart by shadows of religious imagery and metaphor, the centuries-old fears of a dark industrial age, and the cold winds of Dostoevsky’s philosophies.

Refrigerators bleed, machines disfigure men, colour seeps away, skin tightens over sharp bone, and by never leaving Reznik’s side we are irrevocably dragged along with him in his journey of self discovery. For from the start we are in his world, and between the production design and the symbolism it’s a deeply engaging one to visit. Maybe not fun, unless you’re the sort (like me) who gets a kick out of a team of creators performing at the top of their game. Not only does the world of THE MACHINIST feel lived in and familiar but it also plays completely effectively as a portrait of one person’s warped worldview, the environment responding to the character’s psychology in a way that is very special to see. Outer landscape reflects inner landscape, with Trevor eventually forced by internal and external forces to face what he can’t. It’s a slow compression, the claustrophobia of inevitability creeping ever closer until Trevor, squeezed into the box of his own head, can’t deny what his entire world is trying to tell him. So if you want to see psychology, character, and environment in unsettling union, THE MACHINIST is your movie.

... I was so quiet and happy being quiet, and just kind of there, but not really there. But it was also very much an awareness on my part that there are some parts which it's appropriate to disconnect yourself, other parts which it's not appropriate at all, in which you really should be as social as possible and it can actually help. But with this one, it really was necessary because I honestly did find that if I started chatting and being too pally with everybody around on the set, I was exhausted after that, and I just couldn't do the scenes. So my mantra was literally try not to speak unless it's on film, unless I'm doing that scene. So I barely uttered a word to a number of the other actors and actresses. - Christian Bale

“If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.”

There are many kinds of thin, many ways to measure our health. Trevor Reznik is thin in the literal sense, skeletal to a degree that puts many corpses to shame. By the time THE MACHINIST released in 2004 Christian Bale had already been working for nearly twenty years, with a variety of projects ranging from NEWSIES to VELVET GOLDMINE to AMERICAN PSYCHO to EQUILIBRIUM. But the Bale we know now – the one with a reputation for heavy commitment, both emotional and physical, to his roles  - that actor had not fully emerged yet. We saw flashes in PSYCHO, but it was THE MACHINIST (followed six months later by his bulking up for BATMAN BEGINS) that brought this to the fore and struck audiences (those who saw THE MACHINIST, anyway). Which meant that from the sunken face of the opening through to the film’s end, Bale establishes a physical presence that both anchors and defines the story/story world in a way other films only wish they could claim.

But much has been made of Bale’s commitment to the part in this respect, to what is perhaps the unjust detriment of the other side of his performance. Because Reznik is a man whose body not only reflects the natural biological processes that might naturally emerge from his condition of no sleep and little food, but is another powerful example of outer landscape acutely reflecting inner landscape. He’s stretched thin on emotional and psychological levels, haunted and hollowed, and through Bale’s commitment his body becomes a living manifestation of that state. What this does is give the greater film a fullness and a richness, allowing for the ideal cinematic union of character, narrative, emotional experience, and design to be achieved. Whenever you get around to checking the film out, pay particular attention to how there’s an extraordinary amount going on behind Bale’s eyes, a layering of multiple lives that you can catch startling glimpses of if you care to look. It bursts behind every glance, snatches and flashes of his self struggling to survive, struggling to escape this bony prison in which it finds itself. The skill is masterful, and simply put it’s still some of the best work of his career.

Nor is he alone in that excellence – from Jennifer Jason Leigh’s compassionate companion to John Sharian’s unsettlingly easygoing intensity, the cast takes the energy and intention of the film and creeps with them all the way until their story's close.

[Regarding his weight loss] I kind of just wanted to see if I could set myself a challenge and achieve it and have the mental discipline not to waver from it... and it would've been ridiculous if it was for a movie that I didn't think it was worth it, but I felt that it was essential for playing this part. I understand that a number of people have also said to me, 'Well, this isn't going to be a mainstream movie. You're not going to get many people to go and see it. So why did you do it?' Well look, it's not for that. To me a movie doesn't become better just because a lot of people go see it at all. My primary satisfaction for making movies is actually in the making of the movie. So in those terms, absolutely, I feel like it was worth it. - Christian Bale

"Who are you?" 

A simple-sounding question with a potentially earth-shaking answer. Asked by Trevor of himself, by the audience of Trevor, by the other characters of Trevor, by Trevor of the other characters, by the writer and director of the audience. THE MACHINIST makes you think without making you. It’s an all-too-rare film that somehow manages to successfully synchronize exposition with human drama, thematic exploration with character motivation and action, and inner emotional landscape with outer sound and visual design.

Not quite a horror film, not quite a drama, not quite a character piece, not quite a portrait of surrealist disturbance, THE MACHINIST is instead a union of them all that makes an identity all its own. And the film’s just waiting for you to find it, to watch, to observe, to wake up inside Trevor’s ruined head, to see someone else’s reality for two hours.

And in this life of yours, in the reality you’ve crafted for yourself, you may start to wonder:
Who’s chasing you?
What have you done?
And what kind of peace could you find…
… if you faced it…
… and finally let yourself sleep?

BEST SCENE: For a rich example of Bale's commitment as an actor - as, in the parlance of the trade, a reactor - watch his eyes in the scene below. Or if you have the time watch the scene twice, once for the design and once for how Bale gives every moment, every discovery, every development its full due.

SEE IT: You can buy THE MACHINIST on Blu-Ray + DVD HERE!

PARTING SHOT: 

I think that if one is faced by inevitable destruction -- if a house is falling upon you, for instance -- one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one's eyes and wait, come what may . . . - The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Extra Tidbit: If you like THE MACHINIST, give Brad Anderson's follow-up film TRANSSIBERIAN a try.
Source: JoBlo

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