Director Brad Anderson and writer Scott Kosar were unable to find backing or support from any of the American studios when they were shopping this movie. Apparently there were worries that it wasn’t very commercially viable. It turns out they were correct. The film made just over $1 million in domestic box office. That’s not a mistake. I meant $1 million. Even the foreign market came up short, coughing up only an additional $7 million total. Because of the lack of interest here in the States, the duo went to the Spanish government and received a grant. The grant required the film to be made in Spain and include Spanish cast members. But the movie kept its California setting and shot Barcelona for California, and not very effectively either. The truth is, there’s a lot more wrong with this film than just the lack of studio interest and its forced European locations. The team missed a grand opportunity here. They got to shoot in a rather exotic location but never took advantage of the wonderful surroundings. Instead they insisted on keeping the film urban, and in the end rather generic. The only solid set piece is the machine shop, which was filmed in a working plant.
Trevor Reznik (Bale) is a very odd man. We find him a year into a rather dramatic and steady decline. He hasn’t slept in over a year. He is losing weight to the point of emaciation. He works as a machinist for National Machine, where his bosses think he’s taking drugs and his coworkers don’t like him either. None of that is helped when his inability to focus causes another man, Miller (Ironside) to lose his arm in a machine. The only companionship he has is a hooker, Stevie (Leigh) who he pays a hundred bucks a pop and his café waitress, Marie (Sanchez-Gijon) who serves him coffee and pie. His decline appears to accelerate when he meets an apparent new employee at National. Ivan (Sharian) is a monster of a man with whom Trevor becomes obsessed. He leaves little post-it notes to remind him to do everyday things, but these notes usually disappear, replaced instead with cryptic messages and a hangman game. As his mind and body deteriorate, he becomes increasingly paranoid. His mind is pushing him to accept a reality that is not going to be pleasant.
Christian Bale pushed his body to the limits for this role. He dropped 60 pounds from a frame that wasn’t all that heavy to begin with. The result is quite startling and more than a little disturbing. Of course, that’s the point. You can easily make the argument that he went too far. He looks too much like the images of emaciated concentration camp survivors that haunt not our dreams, but our very reality. That stark figure is really Bale and no trick of the camera. He is not at all recognizable as the man who has most recently reincarnated Batman. Some might consider this an act of bravery or an ability to suffer for his art. I thought it was pretty stupid. It shows a surprising level of self control for a man who has been haunted by the famous audio tape of him losing control and cursing out an AD on his latest film.
The supporting cast ends up being far more interesting than Bale. Michael Ironside shows why he’s been one of the hardest working character actors in Hollywood for 40 years. He plays Miller, the guy who ends up losing his arm. By the way, that’s not a first for Ironside. With very little screen time he’s the most real element to the film. In the features Anderson calls Jennifer Jason Leigh the best actress of the last 20 years. He must have been watching another film. Most of the time she just lies there. Of course, that is what hookers do best. There is one pretty emotional scene near the end where she does a convincing enough job, but I would hardly call it stellar. John Sharian does a Michael Chiklis imitation as the ominous Ivan.
The puzzle pieces are not so hard to find and assemble. While it would be nearly impossible to put it all together, it isn’t all that difficult to see the overall direction this is going. It’s not the enigmatic nature of the story or even Bale’s frail frame that causes this film to miss the mark, however. It’s the awful pace of the story that ultimately bogs this film down. I couldn’t help but feel I was watching this movie in slow motion. I understand the point, but it was over made and within a few minutes went from clever to boring. There is a satisfying payoff here, but you’ll have to be willing to plod through this thing, all the while testing your patience. I’ll admit there was a temptation to use my fast forward button. I didn’t. So, I guess you could say I was suffering for my own art.
The film is officially entitled El Maquinista because of the Spanish grant money used to produce it. The government allowed the name change for American audiences for a better chance at selling the film. What I find strange and very annoying is that all of the features and the film itself default to French subtitles that you manually need to turn off each time. I found it happened even after I used the Settings menu to keep them turned off. I guess I could have understood it if these were Spanish options. The French engineering aspect of the disc remains a mystery to me. Surprisingly, it is difficult to get these French subtitles to retreat.
The Machinist is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec. Christian Bale wasn’t the only thing in this film that was pale. The color on this movie has a decidedly bleached look. It appears almost monochromatic except for a few instances where colors do show up more realistically. Obviously this was all intentional and not any problem with the transfer. The image itself is crystal clear with some moments of well defined sharpness. As we examine Bale’s nearly deformed physique, we can see the gaunt lines of his skeletal frame all too clearly. Black levels are as strong as they can be considering how much of the film is washed out. The print is in fine condition with no noticeable defects or artifacts.
The Dolby TrueHD Audio track is as muted as the image. One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is the use of the Theremin in the score. Not since The Day The Earth Stood Still have I heard a more effective use of the strange instrument. No doubt, it’s the best part of the movie. The instrument fits the mood of the piece perfectly and conjures images of old Outer Limits episodes at times. The audio presentation does a standout job of presenting the unique score. Dialog is always audible, and that’s really most of the film. There isn’t much in the way of ambients, and the sub might as well be powered down. Still, it’s as effective as anything else on this release.
This is one of those films where the final reveal is an important part of the experience. I’ve been deliberately vague about what that reveal is to avoid spoiling your chance to figure it all out for yourself. You should avoid all of the extras, including an Audio Commentary which reveals these “secrets”.
Manifesting The Machinist: (23:00) HD: As a writer myself it was a little weird hearing Scott Kosar claim he turned to writing because he had screwed up pretty much every other aspect of his life. Thank God for night classes. The piece is mostly Kosar and Anderson talking about the ideas and problems with getting the film made. I was also put off by the way the film is treated here. We’re talking about a 5 year old movie that few folks have even seen. But the feature treats it like a Hitchcock classic. You get film critics and film historians talking about it like they were examining one of the most important films in the last 100 years. Too self-indulgent for my tastes, but of course that was the trouble with the film itself, wasn’t it? Bale is conspicuously absent here.
Hiding In Plain Sight: (13:58) HD: This one pretty much points out all of the clues from the movie to help you understand how they laid out bread crumbs for you to follow.
Breaking The Rules: (25:19) SD: Bale joins the cast and crew interviews this time. It’s more your typical making of feature but plays out more like a promo piece. You do get a better look behind the scenes here than in any of the other features.
Deleted Scenes: There are 8, and you get a trusty play all option. Two of the scenes come with an optional commentary. Most are merely alternate or extended scenes adding very little.
In the end we have a pretty clever concept which is given an all too abstract feel by Anderson. I think it would have been better to make the “compromises” the American studios required and make the film more accessible to the audience. Art for art’s sake is all well and good, but the ultimate goal of any work of art is that it be seen and appreciated by people. The box office take has, and I’m afraid the home video sales will prove this film to become an obscure piece seen by the few. By then end of the movie I was finally able to relate to Bale’s character. We both “just wanna sleep”.