Movie Review
The Machinist


Director: Brad Anderson
Cast: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh

lthough Eyes Wide Shut and Mulholland Drive stand out as mindfuckers in moviegoers’ recent memory, neither is as revelatory as they would like you to believe. Both films rely on their director’s reputation as an auteur, without demonstrating the intellectual heft they’ve been granted; it’s the patois of sophistication that seduces critic and audience alike. When nothing’s really being said, it’s easy to impute meaning, and such as it was, the criticisms leveled at Eyes Wide Shut and Mulholland Drive were shallow regurgitations that praised the director’s earlier work, almost in reassurance that their latest was equal to it, and that mainstream audiences must have missed what they weren’t smart enough to see. It’s this false inside/outside dichotomy that reconstructs a variant of the high and low culture debate, a divide that the critic, of all people, ought to be able to transcend. If we accept the high and low culture debate as nonsense (something most critics writing today already believe), then shouldn’t the purpose of criticism be to dissolve the gelatinous miasma between cultural products and their audiences? What those films accomplished, in collusion with the critical soft-headedness aiding them, was an art house joke of epic proportion. Who cared if the Emperors weren’t wearing any clothes? Their dicks were so big in the first place!

The Machinist trades on similar gimmickry, revealing little more than vague chicanery once its bloodied gauze is peeled back. Trevor Reznick, played by Christian Bale, is a machinist, an Everyman character who from the outset of the film becomes ensnared in circumstances seemingly beyond his control. However, it’s the extenuating circumstances that matter, and Reznik is hounded by the details, reminding himself with an almost endless paper trail of Post-it notes. What the audience quickly learns is that history, memory, time and space get tossed into Leibniz’s blender, creating possible worlds within rather than constructing them without. But lest these items mislead, it’s the notion that perception is belief that fails to penetrate the audience’s psychological interior.

When even Ramen noodles are out of your price range...

Stealing a visual cue from The Game, The Machinist is bathed in the same eerie green light. It’s the connotative aspects like these that can be most irritating; remember how Lynch resisted such a cheap signal with Twin Peaks by using coral filters on all his lenses and high-key lighting in most scenes? From the moment the film begins, the audience knows something is amiss, which leaves very little to the imagination, contributing substantially to a disruption of the suspension of disbelief and thus barring entry into Reznik’s psycho-somnambulistic episode. Although director Brad Anderson openly admits his influences in the making of the film, they’re so obvious that they distract from the world he’s created. The Machinist bears the hallmarks of films like Seven and Memento; his main character’s name sounds like an amalgamation of Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and Goo Goo Dolls lead Johnny Rzeznik. Reznik poses as Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Without a hook, The Machinist tethers viewers listlessly to an idea that’s thinner than Reznik: that there’s something you don’t already know about the character – but who cares? Overall, it smacks of ham-fisted reverence, and instead of subtly interspersing the appropriate homage here and there, the film tugs on the audience’s sleeve like a young boy does his older sibling, aggressively vying for attention.

Follow the white rabbit, Neo...

The film is not entirely without merit. As a genre piece, The Machinist succeeds wonderfully. A handsomely budgeted B-movie, Anderson pits man against his psychic limits and we retrace the course of one year in Trevor Reznik’s life. Bale plays Reznik as a stranger in his own life, unable to sleep for the past year, who turns to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot as bedside reading. As disquieting as any other aspect of the film, Reznik’s weight drops precipitously, a side-affect of his unexplained insomniac anxiety; his movements slow and calculated, presumably to conserve his energy for the next moment, while the film lumbers apace as a clever mimetic hint. Like Apollo 13 or The Sixth Sense, two even more extravagant B-movies, when The Machinist fails to draw the viewer into breathless rapture, to be left flinching at every mistake and false start, and gasping at the consequences, it still manages to entertain. Although the narrative doesn’t engage the audience’s curiosity, the questions surrounding Reznik’s motivations and actions do: Why can’t he sleep? To what extent do the events in his life reflect a concerted effort to silence him, or are they merely coincidences in one workingman’s life? But it’s intellectual pursuits like these that also disengage the viewer from the entertainment.

When a director sets out to self-consciously imitate the work of his or her forbears, the result washes out anything distinctive in the film itself. Trevor Reznik had potential as a character to develop into a Travis Bickle, but it was the insistence on mysteriousness that dissolved any mystery; Anderson telegraphs it by tapping Morse code on your temple, and the resultant tedium offers a better glimpse into Reznik’s back-story than the story unfolding before you. The reduction of the supporting cast to plot points overshadows their fine performances, and the urgency with which Anderson seeks to overlap genres – playing cat and mouse one moment, reaching inside the mind the next – results in a schizophrenic storyline and ultimately insults the audience’s intelligence. If Anderson’s expectation was to break the “fourth wall” with a Shyamalan-esque twist, then it fails miserably. If he hoped to achieve a theremin-drenched sci-fi movie gone on a psychological bender, then pass the popcorn, please.

By: J T. Ramsay

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Posted 12/07/2004 - 02:02:38 AM by Slumberlord:
 Great review. After the film I walked out pretty disatisfied with the ending (that's it?) and I think you put words on some of my qualms.
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