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[whitespace] 'The Machinist'
Do These Pants Make Me Look Skinny? Christian Bale takes it off for 'The Machinist.'

Trent's Last Case

'The Machinist' is more fun than a movie about starvation and sleeplessness has any right to be

By Richard von Busack

AS A FINE PIECE of machinery for delivering shocks, The Machinist would have been a welcomed addition to the Halloween release schedule. Brad Anderson's expressionist horror story has been delayed a month past the end of October. The best explanation for the later release date was that Christian Bale's performance as Trevor Reznik was considered worth putting forth for Academy Awards season. Bale did something to himself that would seem to put him in the running: the buff, smooth actor of Equilibrium and American Psycho dropped 60 pounds.

With his ribs exposed and his belly stretched tight over his internal organs, Bale looks like he walked out of Dachau. The running joke through The Machinist is "If you were any thinner, you wouldn't exist." Bale's starvation is stunt acting at its most extreme. It proves that this actor, who could have coasted through on his looks, still has former child-actor perversity in him. Like a fakir, he gains respect for his own self-punishment. Reznik has a prostitute friend, Stevie, played by the usually self-punishing Jennifer Jason Leigh. Beaten at her own game here, Leigh gives up, lays back and plays her hooker slow, drawling and easygoing--and thus hasn't been as much of a pleasure to watch since Miami Blues.

The Mechanic is also a pleasure because it doesn't cheat with vague, metaphysical reasons for this self-punishment. There is a good reason why Reznik hasn't slept for a year. Whenever such a case comes on the TV news, you always ask, "How do these people live with themselves?" It's also apparent from the beginning of the film that John Sharian, as Ivan, is a bad figment come to taunt the already near-death Trevor--intelligently, Anderson doesn't dawdle much over the question of whether he exists or doesn't exist. While Anderson has said that he originally had a thinner phantom in mind, Sharian comes on fat, jolly, toothy and Southern--Great Brando's Ghost. For financial reasons, The Machinist was filmed in Barcelona, and it almost looks like Southern California, but it plainly isn't. There are times when one feels that every square inch of Los Angeles has been filmed, and seeing this non-California that Anderson has created adds to the disorientation.

Let's emphasize the fun, while everyone else will be emphasizing how much Bale suffered for it. At heart, The Machinist is a slice-of-cake thriller in the tradition of Hitchcock, in luscious widescreen, with composer Roque Baños rolling in Bernard Herrmann like a dog in wet grass. The gore is minimal, even through scriptwriter Scott Kosar may have been trying for cyberpunk. Reznik's name is almost an anagram for Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails, and the greasy, dank tool-and-die shop would have lent itself to that man-machine motif Reznor's music and videos evoke. Anderson--best known for his romantic comedies like Next Stop Wonderland and The Darien Gap--made the film more velvety. The film is most itself in a sequence at an amusement park, where Trent takes a boy through an increasingly horrible spook house ride. Bale ate himself alive, but this movie may be too much fun for the Academy.

THE MACHINIST (R; 102 min.), directed by Brad Anderson, written by Scott Kosar, photographed by Xavi Giménez and starring Christian Bale and Jennifer Jason Leigh, plays at selected theaters.

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From the November 24-30, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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