The opening scenes in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist show the lengths an actor will go to for a role. Reportedly surviving on an apple and a can of tuna a day, Christian Bale’s weight plummeted from 180 pounds (82 kilograms) to a skeletal 120 pounds (54 kilograms) to play the part of metal worker Trevor Reznik, and the effect is shocking. The gaunt Reznik is a pleasant guy who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere and takes comfort from the two women in his life: a hooker called Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a waitress called Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón).

The movie opens with Reznik trying to dispose of a body wrapped up in a carpet, then flips back a little in time to see how this situation arose. The trigger appears to be an accident at work when a co-worker, Miller (the superb Michael Ironside), loses an arm in the machinery and Reznik is suspected of negligence. He claims his concentration was thrown by a new worker called Ivan (John Sharian, who plays him like a toothy Marlon Brando), but nobody at the factory has ever heard of this new employee. Entering a Kafkaesque nightmare where no-one will believe him and the truth seems to slip through his fingers like wet eels, Reznik embarks on a mission to get to the bottom of the mystery, punctuated by a disturbing game of hangman played out on post-it notes stuck to his fridge door.

Some way into the movie, you begin to suspect that Reznik’s grip on reality might not be as tight as he would like, and the plot seems to signal the way things are going to go, taking bits from Fight ClubMemento and Jacob’s Ladderalong the way. But no matter, because this movie is about the journey not the conclusion.

As with the movies of David Lynch, simple objects seem to throb with menace: Reznik’s fridge, a torch, even a simple glass bowl. A trip on a funfair haunted train ride with Marie’s kid seems to mutate into a truly frightening and surreal nightmare, sticking hot knives directly into Reznik’s brain.

Christian Bale is superb as Reznik: permanently close to falling asleep (he hasn’t slept for a year) but never quite drifting off, he occupies that strange place between sleep and wakefulness. He’s warm and affable, ready with a snappy homily, but tense, paranoid, worried that he’s a puppet in someone else’s sick joke. Bale plays him slow and languid, as if he doesn’t have the energy to deviate from his downward spiral.

The cinematography by Xavi Giménez and Charlie Jiminez is stunning: dark and creepy, and even a bright sunny day seems filled with gloom. Roque Baños’ music at first seemed oddly out of place, but as the movie progressed, the strange, skittish arrangements seemed to make more sense, taking you into Reznik’s world.

Brad Anderson demonstrates once again that he’s a master of the subtle headfuck, which he previously showed with his underrated (and frankly superb) Session 9 (2001), one of the most insidiously unsettling films I’ve ever seen. The Machinist may be a more physical movie in many ways, but you’ll recognise Anderson’s fingers moving slowly through your brain, playing with your sense of what’s real and what isn’t. The Machinist is the stuff of dark, gothic nightmares.

The Machinist (2004)
Dir. Brad Anderson
Stars: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, John Sharian, Michael Ironside
Genre: Horror, Psychological Drama

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