Not least among its questionable achievements, Brad Anderson’s The Machinist plays like a remarkably thorough David Fincher clip reel. Set in a stylized edge-of-nowhere wasteland where electrical storms forever loom overhead, this fetid mood piece embraces split-psyche trauma (Fight Club), paranoid headfuck (The Game), machine fetishism (Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video), and most of all, the freak-show grotesquerie and Gomorrah-on-Earth ambience of Se7en. A prematurely retro exercise in mid-’90s industrial goth-grunge abjection (epitomized by Mark Romanek music videos of the period), the movie goes so far as to install Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor as presiding deity. As downward-spiraling insomniac Trevor Reznik, a 120-pound, famine-physiqued Christian Bale gives new meaning to “minimalist acting.” His performance here is a sort of super-downsize-me stunt, pitched at South Beach Dieting academy voters who may well find his nutritional masochism even sexier than Charlize Theron’s post–Krispy Kreme rebirth.
Anderson understandably stresses Bale’s unnerving transformation—the emaciated actor is often displayed shirtless and in profile. With his sunken bug eyes, concave cheeks, and painfully apparent ribcage and spinal column, he’s certainly a specimen of considerable zoological interest. “If you were any thinner you wouldn’t exist,” drowsy hooker Jennifer Jason Leigh mumbles after literally jumping his bones—a concern echoed by the beatific single-mom waitress (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) at the airport café he frequents nightly. Shuttling between madonna and whore, Trevor, who claims not to have slept in a year, increasingly suffers memory gaps and anxiety attacks. He compulsively washes his hands with bleach, plays an ongoing game of Hangman on a Post-it that mysteriously materializes on his fridge, and becomes so distracted at his machine-shop job that he causes a grisly limb-severing accident.
Like Anderson’s previous creepfest Session 9, The Machinist has a fairly methodical visual scheme. The palette is desaturated to a nauseous gray-green, and most interiors are rigged with a single malevolent light source. Roque Baños’s sumptuous orchestral score confers a counterintuitive Bernard Herrmann–esque heft, and Bale, who shed more than 60 pounds for the role and has since bulked up to superheroic buffness for the new Batman movie, summons a haunted despair to match his ghoulish appearance.
But The Machinist isn’t close to being worthy of his all too visible efforts. It’s obvious within minutes that Trevor’s cackling, Lynchian arc-welder friend (John Sharian) is imaginary, and much of what transpires has a tepid hallucinatory aura. Anderson and screenwriter Scott Kosar (the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) struggle to kill time before the hammer drops—the images get more dutifully surrealist, culminating in a bleeding fridge and a freezer full of stinking fish heads. As its stricken hero’s prominently posed copies of Kafka and Dostoyevsky suggest, the movie takes itself more seriously than it should. The climactic pop-psych flashback is beyond deflationary—it’s flat-out inane. Trevor’s skeletal form and déjà vu twinges eventually come to symbolize the movie’s problems. The Machinist has no meat on its bones, and we’ve seen it all before.