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‘How can you wake from a nightmare if you can’t sleep?’

Maybe if I’d heard the tagline for ‘The Machinist’ (above — & yes, it’s that film where Christian Bale looks as malnourished as a POW) before I saw the movie, I would’ve understood it more. Because that’s the thing…

… if you’re expecting this film to surprise you, it probably won’t.

It begins with insomnia (instantly putting me in mind of ‘Fight Club’) and obvious mental & physical disintegration (reminding me at once of ‘Memento’) and implications of dreaming (‘Vanilla Sky’, perhaps). I guess that made me expect something more sophisticated than what it had to give.

I’m still not sure to make of the ‘clues’ in the film. One review called them red herrings. But were they? I tend to suspect they were actually meaningless, neither clues nor false leads.

The biggest ‘red herring’ of all is the way the cast members outweigh their roles at every turn. Jennifer Jason Leigh as the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold? Michael Ironside as the crazily cheerful co-worker? I thought there’d be more for them to do. Seems to me that rather than build characters, the creators employed capable actors, gave them not much to do, and hoped from their very presences that we would surmise there must be more to their backstories.

Other clues: the non-advancing clocks at the airport, the way phrases are shared by characters that theoretically haven’t met, the hangman, the fish heads, *that* recurring intersection. But when it all adds up to exactly what it appears to be adding up to, are they really ‘clues’, or just part of narrative?

And when Reznick (Bale) says to Marie, ‘Sounds dreamy’, are we to assume he’s dreaming? When he later says, ‘I haven’t slept in a year’, are we meant to second-guess our conclusion? OK, maybe he’s not, technically, dreaming. Maybe he’s having an insomniac’s hallucination (you know what they say in Fight Club: With insomnia, you’re never fully awake & you’re never fully asleep). But the distinction is irrelevant. Reznick is on a mental downward slide, a psychological emaciation at least equal to his dramatic physical one. He is fucking with his own mind in the same way Bale fucked with his health in preparing for the role, eating no more than one apple a day.

At the end of the film, Reznick shouts, ‘I know who you are. I know who you are.’

And so do we. But … so what? The clues that lead us here were incidental, post-modern in their absence of meaning.

That said, ‘The Machinist’ frightened & disturbed me a lot more than any other movie I’ve seen for a long time. It has moments of unrelenting tension & terse inevitability. And maybe that’s why the ‘clues’ are so ineffectual — it all adds up to a film with one inevitable ending. But with that ending suddenly the whole frightening thing is quietly resolved and put aside.

As the reviews say, it’s a character study not a traditional film with traditional progress. And I can understand that. But still. The ease of its ending means it’s hard for me to keep the movie in my mind. The terrifying images of the film are almost undermined as Reznick slumps down in those final moments, presumably, to sleep.

The thing that you will remember, of course, is Bale’s dramatic weight loss. It was so repulsive I found myself wanting to walk out; so unnerving I wanted to post him a sandwich and the number of a good shrink. Acting, I began to worry, was consuming Bale. Acting was eating the meat off his bones and he had to be stopped from this wholesale self-destruction. I kept looking for that too-healthy, too-white privileged male he played in ‘American Psycho’. His face is still expressive, but his expressions seem to slide in slow motion across his features. He’s acting as a crazy man, but has the real-life weight loss sent him crazy, too?

And to top it all off, the previews before the movie included one for ‘Batman’, in which Bale appears to be in fine physical form. Thank-god. I wasn’t sure my sandwiches-by-post idea was gonna work.

“Beyond his physical transformation, though Bale’s performance is remarkable in other ways, granting you access into the very conceit of film — all illusion and surfaces, all planes receding into two dimensions. Trevor is an image disappearing, more about reduction and loss than self-knowledge and identification. He doesn’t exist in the ways that most movie characters do. And so you have to find a place next to or within him. There’s precious little room.”
Cynthia Fuchs, Popmatters

I hope he filmed ‘The Machinist’ first.