Note: There are major spoilers for The Machinist in this piece. If you want to maintain the surprises of the movie, don’t read this before you see it.
Trevor Reznik says he hasn’t slept in a year.
But this can’t be true. Setting aside the issue of whether such a feat (or a torture, as the case may be) is biologically possible, the movie doesn’t allow it either.
In fact, Reznik, I argue, is actually asleep for large portions of the film, but – underscoring just how estranged he is from himself; one of the film’s major themes – he just doesn’t know it (and because the film is shot from his point of view, the audience is equally unaware).
To get the obvious out of the way: There is no Ivan. Ivan, not unlike Tyler Durden, is the external character that Reznik creates to deal with what he’s done, with the horror he’s perpetrated and that he’s hidden from.
Ivan is the vessel that Reznik uses to hold all of his feelings of guilt, horror, and vulnerability. Reznik feels like a monster for what he’s done, Ivan looks monstrous thanks to his mangled hand and limp.
More than that, though, Ivan personifies how the Reznik of the movie, the Reznik one year later, sees his older self. He sees him as swaggering, unpleasant, irresponsible, dangerous.
But because there is no Ivan, we know that Reznik has to be sleeping sometimes. For instance, the only person who could be leaving the Post-It Notes in Reznik’s apartment is Reznik himself. There are two explanations for how he could be leaving these notes for himself but not know it: that it’s another example of how far he’s removed from his own consciousness, or he did it while asleep, sleepwalking. Both seem equally likely.
Either way, these notes left from Reznik to himself are yet another example his subconscious, his guilt, bleeding out over the boundaries of his repression of it and into his waking world. The whole film, of course, is a story of self-discovery, of Reznik allowing himself to truly know who he is. Something in him is aching to make this introduction all throughout the film.
Again, the obvious: He has no relationship with Maria. He saw he once, for a split second, just after killing her son. So, if Reznik does not have an actual relationship with her, how do we explain the date at the amusement park? The only way I can see to explain it, and Reznik’s understanding of it being real, his thinking that it’s actually happening, is that it’s a dream and he doesn’t realize it.
So, again, we find that he’s asleep without realizing it.
Lastly, it’s also possible that Reznik’s encounter with Ivan on the shop floor – the encounter that leads to the accident that costs his coworker his arm – actually takes place while Reznik is asleep.
In that scene, Reznik frequently leans over the machine, nearly resting his head on his arms. The motion when he’s startled by Ivan and lurches back into the machine is similar to the way someone might lurch if they briefly fall asleep when they don’t want to and then jerk awake.
There may be other instances of Reznik’s sleeping without realizing it, but I’ll need to see the film again before I can say.
That’s part of the brilliance of The Machinist. The movie shifts so effortlessly between what is real and what is illusion, between waking life and sleeping, that the audience can scarcely see the change. Nothing about the direction or scene makes it obvious that such a shift takes place – making Reznik’s, and the audience’s, grip on reality all the more slippery and terrify (and probably realistic. It seems most likely that when we loose touch with the “real? world, it happens without our noticing).
Perhaps the film doesn’t make these shifts obvious to the viewer because Brad Anderson considers them unimportant. The Machinist is an existential film and as such, nothing is inherently real or unreal. The only things with meaning are the things that Trevor Reznik invests with meaning. So, whether they can be seen by other people or not, anything Reznik believes to be real is, de facto, real.
Reznik’s nightmare world is unquestionably real for him and it’s the world he condemns himself to (we’re shown repeatedly that he could eat if he wanted to. He doesn’t, though, because he’s punishing himself for what he’s done). It’s because of the depth of his a self-alienation, the strength of his determination not to face up to his crime, that he fails to see that he’s created this world for himself.
Not until he confronts who he truly is, and the terrible thing he’s done, can he end his nightmare, and awaken to a world of responsibility and peaceful rest.