Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 26, 2004 8:25 pm 
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Don't try this at home

Trevor is a machinist. He hasn't slept for a year. He isn't eating much of anything. Something is terribly wrong with him. Is this what we want to see around Thanksgiving?

It's ironic that the wide release of Brad Anderson's The Machinist -- the movie about a man wasting away for which star Christian Bale lost a third of his body weight (63 pounds) -- was shifted from September to Thanksgiving week, the one time in the year when everybody in this sporadically dieting country is sure to be putting on fat. Opening such a grim, starved, angst-ridden piece at a time of heavy eating and celebration suggests this movie is ill-starred.

As drama The Machinist is almost as thin as its star. Its success is limited to the achievement of an edgy mood. The buzz around Bale's risky feat overwhelms the little movie and suggests it will come away with more cult status than critical approval. It may allude to video games and screenwriter "horror movie remake guy" Scott Kosar's Rob Zombie film clip collection and even a rock star's angst (Bale's character's name Trevor Reznick echoes Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails') but the story line contains no more meat than a half-hour spook story on Fifties radio -- the kind that gave you twenty minutes of tension and mystery and then offered a quick revelatory twist in the last four or five.

If you believe film requires real images, here you obviously get them. The camera offers generous views of the normally handsome actor's terrifyingly bony, wasted back and chest, his sallow, sunken face and the insect-like profile of his body. None of these could be faked. Bale's Auschwitzean appearance shows a dedication to his role with a slightly negative side, though, because it suggests he lacked faith that his acting ability alone would have worked.

This is the kind of movie that seeks to scare and haunt us by exhibiting a very "dark" world, a blued-out high contrast starkly lighted stormy skied industrial wasteland and a man living alone in a grim little pad and moving between a harsh metalworking shop, a whore's (Jennifer Jason Leigh's) dingy flat where he goes often for sex and human warmth (you wonder how in his condition he could get it up), and a stark airport café where he flirts with the waitress (Aitana Sánchez Gijón) over coffee and pie (which he never consumes) in the wee hours. At home scary post-its appear out of nowhere on his fridge and he nods out over Dostoevsky's The Idiot. Then Trevor causes an awful accident at the shop in which a coworker loses an arm, he has mischancy dates with the café waitress, the whore wants to marry him, and he and a sinister replacement at work named Ivan (John Sharian) start stalking each other. We've seen the hero trying to dispose of a body on the edge of a cliff and blood is starting to seep out of that fridge. Dark, see?

But what's odd is that Bale is disconcertingly cheerful and steady throughout most of his performance as Trevor. He frequently smiles a smile that's all the sweeter appearing in the middle of that starved face. It's not till he's pushed to his limits that he starts to get angry with his mean coworkers. Perhaps the sweetness was a good idea. It keeps the angst from being quite so overdone. But it doesn't really fit the situation and the part.

Anyway, the mystery is resolved satisfactorily in the last few minutes just as on Fifties radio. At least we find out why Trevor wasn't able to sleep. We may never be clear on what was real and what was a mirage. Photos of the premiere show Bale hale and hearty again, fatter than he was when he made Laurel Canyon. And now he's buffed up for Batman and appears to have sustained no lasting damage from his concentration camp simulation. But one fears he may have gotten locked into one of those Hollywood cycles of thinning down for roles and fattening up in between that Keanu Reeves and countless others seem to follow. Is maintaining normal health really inconsistent with being a serious screen actor?

©Chris Knipp.2004

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