Brad Anderson's Session 9 is an underappreciated slice of psychological horror, something of a ghost story teeming with thrilling ambiance and unsettling performances from all involved. It's only natural that The Machinist, his follow-up film, could be something of a success within the mystery genre, taking to heart the marks and fumbles learned from his time in the abandoned, asbestos-coated asylum. But this rattling tour de force more than satisfies expectations; Anderson finds this unfathomable balance between a mind-rattling premise and Christian Bale's now-infamous visage of an emaciated man haunted by an unknown secret, transforming it into a slow-burning mind job fiendishly successful at luring us into a web of psychological torment.
Easily the strongest work that penman Scott Kosar (screenwriter of the Texas Chainsaw and Amityville Horror remakes) has scribed to date, The Machinist tells Trevor's story, a man who hasn't significantly slept for prolonged periods of time in well over a year. He goes to work at a mechanics plant, writes himself oft-forgotten reminders to pay bills or go to the store for commonplace stuffs like cleaning supplies, and frequently patrons a good-natured call girl (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and an airport pie-and-coffee waitress (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) for scant amounts of socialization. Sleeplessness is causing him to rapidly lose weight, watching the number value sink by way of Post-its above his scale down from the 130s to the 120s, and lower. It might be chalked up to unexplainable metabolic issues, if it weren't for a series of notes left on his fridge -- pictures, even, of a Hangman game that he can't remember drawing -- that seem to allude to an answer behind Trevor's insomnia.
Director Anderson uses a restrained yet overbearingly cold atmosphere in weaving together his complex mystery, giving The Machinist a density that you can almost cut through. As we begin the story with Trevor reading Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" with a hypnotically, heavy-eyed glaze over his eyes, it ignites those compelling puzzle-solving triggers in our minds. It also adds a precursor to its disparate demeanor. Bleakness is a major component to its success, operating on a heartless and mechanical level that taps into emotional stagnancy in a rather cold-blooded fashion. It's certainly not a pleasant cinematic experience, but it's damned compelling to say the least.
When Trevor begins his downward spiral into madness as he turns his life upside down -- in some ways positive, others excruciatingly negative -- to solve the riddle behind the random notes, The Machinist keeps a steady rhythm amid potentially tone-boggling chaos. Similar human conspiracy thrillers, like Roman Polanski's The Tenant or John Maybury's The Jacket, dart in maddening directions as the protagonist seeps deeper into his mystery. Brad Anderson, to the contrary, keeps a strangely low-key yet effective tone with his actors and the overall smoothness of the twisting reveals, crafting Reznik's revelatory scramble into a slow, painful descent. As he interweaves with the contorted tools in the unionized machine warehouse and through his sterile apartment, a sense of emptiness surrounds Trevor that seems strangely purposeful.
It's hard to critique Christian Bale's performance in The Machinist, largely because his dangerous weight loss and frail movement almost speak more than the words coming from his character's mouth. His work towards growing incredible thin likely added to Trevor's exhaustion as a character, making it easy for his frightening visage to seem drained and semi-lethargic. However, there's that unmistakable fire within Bale's eyes that gives us a taste of something extra, electricity that adds an additional layer to the character's complication. He's incredible effective, whether we're basing it on his visual appearance or his typically excellent dramatic stage presence, and overwhelmingly successful as the mysterious magnet wedged in the middle of The Machinist -- existing much more than merely a gimmick to sucker audiences into seeing the film.
Bale's interactions with the supporting cast, however, are what build the framework of The Machinist. His conversations with Jason Leigh's prostitute character mimic those to Sánchez-Gijón's waitress, even connecting similar phrases about his thinness that seem too similar to ignore. Similar vocal tones both conflict and interconnect with their opposing personalities, something that speaks to strong chemistry between Trevor and the dual relationships that he develops in his life. His frustration, enhanced by uneasy, disconnected relationships with his co-workers (including effective performances from Michael Ironside and Reg E. Cathey), becomes one of conspiracy-fueled mania as he ginger-foots around his new "pal", Ivan (John Sharian). The more complex Trevor's life gets, the deeper it dives into convolution -- and the more ambiguous all his acquaintances become.
As with Session 9, Brad Anderson makes it excruciatingly difficult to identify with any of the troubled, dark characters on a personal level in The Machinist, all the way until the culmination. He gives us all the clues that we might need to solve the riddle ourselves, placing them in plain sight for easy consumption. Even then, the tricks he has up his sleeve are devilish, primarily because they resonate on rather personal levels that end in, surprisingly, an uplifting and redeeming fashion. Don't get me wrong, The Machinist is as dark as thrilling mind-benders can get; however, there's something strangely rewarding and climactic about the conclusion that gives it an air of decency. Hitchcockian in construction with a garnish of philosophical "Twilight Zone" thought-ignition, Brad Anderson's grim cerebral meltdown relishes in parading all its tricks around Bale's unsettling presence -- then takes its audience down a gut-wrenching path towards its twist, one even more satisfying than Anderson's previous work.
Video and Audio:
The Machinist receives the high-definition treatment from Paramount in a strong 1080p AVC encode, preserving the 2.35:1 aspect ratio of its theatrical distribution. Its visual design is one that's tough to monitor, staying low in saturation and embodying a slate blue / soft seafoam color timing. What stands out the most is the outstanding concentration on enhancing this palette, undoubtedly a strong step above its standard-definition counterpart. Flesh tones, though low for the visual style, stand out with more accuracy with the rest of the color timing, while blasts of color like neon signs and the bright red muscle car jump from the screen. Detail has received a rich boost, highly noticeable in the mechanical bits and pieces, along with noticeably stronger contrast concentration in its densely unique visual style. Still, grain gets a little heavy in some sequences, while print damage can be spotted intermittently. It's still a strong presentation with excellence in clarity and contrast, with no perceptible instances of edge enhancement of noise reduction that distort the visual design.
On the audio front, a Dolby TrueHD track has been included to support the AVC visual treatment, a fine step above the Dolby Digital track from the standard-definition disc. Sound effects are limited to the ambient sounds of metallic workmanship in the factory and a few other sounds (like a chainsaw and the screeching of tires), most of which stay focused to the front channels. Where the multi-dimensionality comes in is with the score, a sound treatment oftentimes enhanced with Theremin flutters. They fluctuate throughout the track, enhancing both the ominous scoring and the overall haunting demeanor of the film. Sporting a slick level of clarity, it's in the crispness that this track earns its boost -- especially in crisp, clean dialogue. To accompany the audio track, an option set of subtitles available in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, while alternate French and Spanish 5.1 tracks have been offered.
Commentary with Brad Anderson:
Anderson's commentary is excellent, staying extraordinarily insightful while also remaining very laid back. He ushers in thoughts on Scott Kosar's inclusion of Dostoyevsky literature -- especially "The Double" -- into specific scenes, most notably the bar scene with Ivan and the haunted car ride with the waitress' son. His demeanor is comfortable yet lively, building into a quality track with next to no pretentiousness and a strong focus on viewer interest.
Manifesting The Machinist -- NEW (23:00, HD AVC):
This featurette takes a more sober and intricate path in telling The Machinist's story from start to finish. It discusses how Kosar wrote the film at UCLA, shooting in Barcelona and using unspecific elements to even out the setting's personality. It also discusses the near-monochromatic nature of the visuals, as well as the noir-ish elements to the film. Interview time with director Anderson, writer Kosar, as well as members of the cast and crew splice within footage from the film. There's also plenty of discussion on Bale's 62-pound weight loss, his character breaks and the usage of facial expression behind his portrayal.
The Machinist: Hiding in Plain Sight -- NEW (13:58, HD AVC):
Discussion directly falls on the Dostoyevsky and Kafka-esque elements within the film, all of which piece together into a complex network of hints and existential thought processes. Similar interview time as the first weaves into direct shots from the film, expressing their symbolism to the story and to Kosar as the writer. He dives into the meaning behind some of the double-meaning phrases that only become lucid after two or three screenings normally, discussing Stevie's comments next to Trevor in the bathtub and the concentration on guilt. Lots of these elements can be picked up after a few viewings, but some of them -- some of the symbols -- might escape even the staunchest of puzzle-solvers with dense knowledge of the books in reference.
The Machinist: Breaking the Rules (25:18, SD Letterbox MPEG-2)
Taking us deep behind the scenes of The Machinist' production, this piece largely loops interview footage as a backdrop sound to the footage from director Anderson's point of view. Bale's interview time is intriguing, as it reflects his determination behind his role. There's a few moments where the featurette feels like generic marketing bullet-point material, but the insight is better than average assembly insights. The behind-the-scenes footage encapsulates set design, prop work, and cinematography tricks, bringing everything together to paint a proper picture of the film's construction.
Also available are eight Deleted Scenes (12:05, SD Letterbox MPEG-2), two of which have option commentaries with Brad Anderson, and a lengthy Theatrical Trailer (2:32, SD Letterbox MPEG-2).
Brad Anderson's The Machinist takes a sublimely bleak script from writer Scott Kosar and transforms it into a fervent mystery rich with atmosphere. It's a dark and deranged exercise in puzzle cinema with Christian Bale as the tentpole performer, a role that demands viewer attention both with the actor's triumphant skill and his frighteningly garish physique. But his weight loss stands as more than just a ploy to lure in viewers, though it succeeds in that aspect; it becomes an integral element interwoven into this surprisingly literate suspense drenched in references to equally melancholy pieces of literature. Most of all, it's outstanding at unsettling its audience -- while also keeping their brains dialed in throughout the darkness.
Paramount's Blu-ray takes the atmosphere of the film and dials it up a few notches, along with adding a few supplements onto the carried-over special features from the standard-definition DVD. The Machinist might be a thick, grimy film, but the symbolism and stinging lines of dialogue vamp each screening into something different, earning this Blu-ray a High Recommendation for its fine digital presentation of an intriguingly bleak film worth quite a few return visits.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site