The Machinist follows Christian Bale as machinist Trevor Reznik, whose life begins unravelling all around him. As he grows isolated from his peers at work, and attempts to grow closer with the few beacons of hope in his life, he finds himself disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious man known only as "Ivan."
Things reach a fever pitch as Trevor grows more and more sleep-deprived, and begins losing hold of what is reality and what is constructed by his tired psyche. Eventually, Trevor realizes that Ivan is a figment of his imagination, and he unlocks his repressed memories and realizes that he was responsible for a hit-and-run that led to the death of a young child. Finally understanding the gravity of his situation, Trevor hands himself in to the police, and is set to face the consequences of his actions.
The Machinist was released in 2004 to mixed critical acclaim. Christian Bale portrayed a manic Reznik throughout the film, who found himself sleep-deprived, emaciated, and paranoid. As Bale's Reznik struggles to figure out what is happening to him, his portrayal jumps from off-putting to disturbing rapidly. Christian Bale's depiction of a man pushed to his physical, emotional, and psychological limits became iconic and a testament to his acting ability in it's own right. With that said, here are the 7 reasons Bale's portrayal was so powerful and disturbing.
Christian Bale's Physical Transformation
Prior to The Machinist, Christian Bale worked on films like American Psycho, where he portrayed fit, and sometimes athletic men. As The Machinist described Trevor as a "living skeleton", Bale stepped up to bat and worked on developing a physique to match the description. Bale drastically changed his diet, slimming it down to "water, an apple and one cup of coffee per day, with the occasional whiskey." The results spoke for themselves, as Bale's weight plummetted from 182 pounds to a 120 pounds. Bale expressed his interest to continue until reaching a target weight of 99 pounds, but was ultimately advised against it on health grounds by the filmmakers. Despite this, Bale's body went from athletic, to emaciated with great effect. Sunken eyes, protruding vertebrae, and ever-visible ribs create a disturbing, almost corpse-like visual present throughout the entire film.
The Lighting and Color
The film's muted color palette enhances the feeling of dread and unease that constantly lingers on each scene. Bright colors are seldom seen, and every shadow lingers. The shadow-play itself works well with Christian Bale's physique for the film, as the shadows get caught and sharply define the skeletal features brought on by his sudden weight loss. Furthermore, even the best lit scenes in the film add to the unease, as the light feels oppressive and utilizes the color pallette one would expect from a poorly maintained flourescent bulb.
How Christian Bale Portrays Sleep Deprivation
The film makes a point to highlight that Trevor suffers from insomnia, and ties it closely to his repressed feelings. Christian Bale, however, does more than just portray a protagonist who dozes off frequently. As in real life, Trevor's insomnia leaves him feeling agitated and uneasy, as his body swings between fits of tiredness to caffeine-induced artificial "second winds." Bale's resting expressions and demeanor illustrate that Trevor's sleep deprivation is not just making him physically exhausted, but is also chipping away at his emotional state and perception of reality.
The Escalating Desperation
Trevor's plight, at least from the perspective of the film, begins with a work-related accident that occurred under his watch. From here Trevor works himself up; at first worrying if what he's experiencing is the revenge of the man who was injured in the accident. When he realizes that his plight is not instigated by the man he wronged, Trevor grows even more frantic, as now he no longer has an explanation for what's occurring to him. Things begin to seem more surreal, and blend in with his psyche, and Bale's performance rises with the tension. Every awkward interaction with another character quickly becomes a cry for help, as Trevor realizes how isolated he truly is, and how powerless he is given the circumstances.
The Story's Focus on Redemption
A recurring theme in the story is the "road to redemption," which is evidently tied to the fact that Trevor never owned up to his traumatic hit-and-run. Trevor truly believes himself beyond redemption, and in the first act of the film, the thought is far removed from his mind. However, as he realizes that his plight is not the cause of a disgruntled co-worker's revenge quest, the thought explodes into the foreground of his mind, and Trevor begins question if there is any redemption for him. Bale's performance at this point in the film portrays the solemn, quiet despair of a man wondering if he is redeemable, and furthermore, does he consider himself worthy of that redemption?
The Portrayal of Guilt
Before the audience even realizes that Trevor is responsible for manslaughter, subtle signs begin to show that Trevor is hiding something, and it weighs on his conscience. Throughout the film, Trevor is seen at various times washing his hands. Bale's performance elevates this simple sanitary procedure into a frantic and earnest attempt to forcefully remove a taint from one's person. Trevor washes his hands with bleach, as opposed to handsoap, as if whatever has soiled his hands is too strong for conventional soap to handle. Bale's facial expression as he washes his hands is desperate, as though his life depended on becoming cleansed. Furthermore, when Trevor finally turns himself in and owns up to his crime, he appears drastically relieved. Despite being incarcerated for an unknown amount of time, Trevor seems much more at ease, and when he gets to his cell, he finally falls asleep for the first time in a long while.
How It Handles Trauma
While Trevor has repressed his trauma, Bale brings it full front and center with his subtle mannerisms and demeanor. From the onset of the film, the audience can tell that something is off about Trevor. However, Trevor himself keeps a tight lid on his trauma, and the audience and other characters are initially left to wonder what is the source of his paranoia and reserved character. Trevor may have suppressed his memories from his waking consciousness, but in his dreams and hallucinations, he gets inklings of the truth which continue to edge him on to desperation. Bale's portrayal of a man bottling up his emotions and trauma hauntingly shows the adverse effects of fleeing from ones troubles and emotions, showing just how destructive avoiding consequence and confrontation can really be.