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Dark 'Machinist' Carries Weight

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2004; Page WE34

SOMETHING APPEARS to be eating away at Trevor Reznik -- literally. As embodied by Christian Bale, who lost an astonishing 60-plus pounds in preparation for the title role in "The Machinist," Trevor isn't so much flesh and blood as a walking ghost, a chronically sleepless, gaunt-to-the-point-of-pain (ours, mind you, not his) wraith of a man. As it turns out, he's a character so haunted by himself that he is turning into his own ghost.

Much has been written about Bale's physical transformation for this film, a remarkable display of starving for one's art that should go into the moviemaking record books on the page opposite Robert De Niro and Vincent D'Onofrio's legendary weight gains for "Raging Bull" and "Full Metal Jacket." While the results of Bale's shocking, special-effect-free emaciation occasionally threaten to become a distraction for the audience, especially when the previously healthy-looking actor has his shirt off, they are an essential visual metaphor for the film's message, which comes into full, dark flower only in a clever twist at the end.

An emaciated Christian Bale plays Trevor, a man haunted by himself in the psychological suspense film "The Machinist." (Nicolas Gellar -- Paramount Classics)

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Despite containing an implicit lesson about sin, "The Machinist" is structured less like a morality play than a straightforward mystery thriller. As it opens, Trevor, an employee of a soul-deadening machine shop, hasn't slept in a year, and he would like to know why. He'd also like to know why several other strange things keep happening to him lately, such as the appearance of several cryptic Post-it notes in his dingy apartment, and the arrival of a creepy new employee at work (John Sharian), whom it appears only Trevor can see.

Then there's the accident.

After inadvertently causing a co-worker (Michael Ironside) to lose an arm in an industrial mishap due to his own inattention, Trevor's insomnia and paranoia (with possible hallucinations) get worse. Soon, he comes to believe that not only are his co-workers out to punish him for the incident, but that his up-to-now understanding hooker-girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) may be in collusion with one or more of his tormentors. Trevor's only solace? The graveyard-shift waitress at the local airport (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), an angelic, almost maternal presence whose nightly pie, companionship and coffee -- as if this man needs more caffeine! -- are the few things that keep Trevor sane.

Or are they?

Tautly scripted by Scott Kosar, and directed with quiet, nightmarish intensity by Brad Anderson (see Film Notes on Page 39), "The Machinist" is psychological suspense at its finest. Shot with a cold blue pallor and edited with a somnambulistic lethargy that belies the urgency of its subject matter -- the nature of guilt and innocence -- the film feels at times like you're dreaming it, rather than watching it. Taking its stylistic cues not from today's crop of horror films, but from such masterpieces as Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" (1965) and Ingmar Bergman's "Hour of the Wolf" (1968), it makes even scarier that most scary of bogeymen: the human mind.

THE MACHINIST (R, 102 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, sexuality and disturbing, violent imagery. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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