There’s a scene part way through the first A Nightmare on Elm St. in which a sleep doctor tells the movie’s hero, Nancy, that if someone doesn’t dream, they’ll go insane.
If this is true, Trevor Reznik, the main character of The Machinist is in trouble, because by his count he hasn’t slept in a year.
Reznik, the film’s titular machinist, is haggard and gaunt, wasting away day by day, as the list of Post-It notes on his bathroom wall (charting the decline of his weight from the 150s down into the 110s) illustrates.
And he just can’t sleep. Each time he comes close, whether it’s dozing off when reading a book or in his truck on a cigarette break at work, something rouses him and ends his incipient rest.
If, as the doctor in A Nightmare on Elm St. said, not dreaming will drive a person crazy, then Trevor Reznik is going crazy.
He meets a man named Ivan who claims to work with him, but no one in his factory has ever seen or met the grotesquely deformed Ivan (played by the uncomfortably creepy and subtly violent Sharian) who has toes instead of fingers after an industrial accident. Mysterious, threatening Post-It notes (most ominously, one with a recently begun game of hangman on it) begin appearing in Reznik’s apartment.
To make matters worse, when helping a co-worker clean a jammed machine, Reznik sees Ivan make a throat-cutting gesture at him, which startles Reznik and causes an accident which costs his coworker an arm.
Reznik, jittery and paranoid from lack of sleep, finds some measure of shelter, but not relief, in only two people: Stevie (Leigh), a prostitute who Reznik regularly visits, and Maria (Sanchez-Gijon), the waitress at the airport diner that Reznik spends every night in.
As he spends more time with both women and romances bloom with each, he sinks deeper into the mystery of why he can’t sleep, why he’s seeing things that no one else is, what’s happening to him.
As the mysteries pile up, it starts to beocme clear that Reznik may be deeply involved in a nightmare world far worse than he realizes.
The film is shot with a washed out, blasted color that makes Reznik’s world seem almost black and white in many scenes (this echoes the dreamlike feel of the film – colors only seem to appear when they’re important).
And though the look of the film is interesting, the most visually arresting thing about The Machinist is Bale himself. Bale, now somewhat famously, lost 63 pounds to portray Reznik. This transformation, this wasting of his body (which was so muscular and defined in Bale’s breakout film, American Psycho) is both shocking and enthralling – a number of shots of Bale’s body, out of context or truncated, make it seem like an inhuman object.
Director Anderson, coming off 2001’s brilliant horror film Session 9, once again turns in a terrific film. His touch is deft, his respect for his characters and their lives deep, and his ability to create tension and fear powerful.
The Machinist is an intriguing, taught, exciting thriller and it firmly cements Anderson’s status as one of the best creators of dark cinema the United States has to offer.
Fans of David Lynch’s dream-logic narratives and the new-noir crime dramas of Christopher (Memento) Nolan (who is directing Bale in the upcoming Batman Begins) will love The Machinist. And anyone who likes dark cinema, thrillers, or psychological suspense films owes it to themselves to see one of the best films in the genre in recent years.