Intense, precision-controlled psychological mystery built around a very creepy lead performance by Christian Bale. Study of deterioration of a disturbed insomniac is too peculiar and unsensationalistic for mass consumption. Warrants further fest play, and pic could easily develop a cult following internationally in specialized release.

Following up on the nervous paranoia of his 2001 horror item “Session 9″ rather than the comedic humanism of his other work, director Brad Anderson’s “The Machinist” is an intense, precision-controlled psychological mystery built around a very creepy lead performance by Christian Bale. Shot in Spain but set in a banal Anywhere rendered in strikingly desaturated tones, this study of the deterioration of a disturbed insomniac is too peculiar and unsensationalistic for mass consumption. But its rigor and seriousness warrant further fest play, and pic could easily develop a cult following among young audiences internationally in specialized release.

The first thing people will note about “The Machinist” is the appearance of Bale, who dropped an alleged 63 pounds off of his pumped-up “American Psycho” torso to emerge in such a state of rib-bulging cadaverousness that he looks like he just walked out of a concentration camp. There are clearly no CGI shenanigans involved, and the sight of him is continually unnerving.

Literally devoted to depicting a waking nightmare, collaboration between Anderson and first-time scripter Scott A. Kosar most readily calls to mind Polanski in his “The Tenant” mode, with echoes of Hitchcock, Lynch, Kafka and Dostoyevsky wafting through as well (Bale’s character is conspicuously making his way through the latter’s “The Idiot”).

Working mostly on anonymous industrial-area and outlying urban locations, helmer creates a suffocatingly sulfurous atmosphere in which a potentially malignant threat lies within anyone or anything.

Pic does not afford a pleasant sit, but provides enough mystery and tantalizing tidbits to keep the willing viewer going up to an ending that satisfyingly pulls together information that has hitherto been strategically withheld.

After a teaser opening in which Trevor (Bale) is seen dropping a rug-wrapped body into the drink, the skeletal young man seeks momentary solace in the arms of sympathetic hooker Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The tortured soul hasn’t slept in a year and can’t say why; his one comfort is that, “No one ever died of insomnia.”

Work for Trevor consists of the dreary routine of the drill press in a moderate-sized factory. Distracted by a stranger at the shop, Trevor inadvertently causes an accident that results in serious injury to a colleague (Michael Ironside). This initially alienates Trevor from his co-workers, who already consider him sullen and weird, and eventually triggers his firing.

But this is merely the surface “action” of Kosar’s carefully knitted script, which builds its portrait of a tormented man through an accumulation of threats — real or perceived — received by Trevor: cryptic notes mysteriously posted in his apartment, ambiguous encounters with the “stranger” Ivan (an effectively menacing John Sharian) no one seems to know, and the latter’s license plate being the same as his.

Then there is Trevor’s uniquely agreeable relationship with Marie (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), an airport cafe waitress he visits on the job in the middle of the night just to chat with. Latter has a son with whom Trevor bonds until the kid has an epileptic fit after Trevor takes him on a scary “Highway to Hell” ride at an amusement park.

Throughout the story’s progress through the plagued environment inhabited by Trevor, film does a good job of maintaining doubt — and interest in — whether the world simply has it in for the young man, he’s imagining things, or there’s some kind of personality split going on. And whose body was it that Trevor was disposing of at the outset? Films of this nature more often than not resolve themselves with groaner endings, but not this one, which feels all of a piece at fadeout.

Pic’s integrity is clinched by Bale, whose haunted, aggressive and finally wrenching performance gives “The Machinist” a strong anchor. In their handful of scenes, Leigh provides a vibrantly flexible emotional foil for him, while Sanchez-Gijon offers a more elusive but alluring contrast.

Shooting with smarts in widescreen, Anderson and lenser Xavi Gimenez use a narrow visual focus and an oppressively limited color scheme to create the feeling of space closing in on the protagonist. Instead of seconding this with a predictably discordant, electronic soundtrack, however, Anderson happily has gone with a full-blown orchestral score in the grand Hollywood manner by Roque Banos, whose moody, turbulent expressions of Trevor’s emotional turmoil and psychological displacement recall Bernard Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock.

The Machinist

Spain

Production

A Filmax Entertainment presentation of a Julio Fernandez production for Castelao Prods. (International sales, Filmax International, Barcelona.) Produced by Fernandez. Executive producers, Antonia Nava, Carlos Fernandez. Directed by Brad Anderson. Screenplay, Scott A. Kosar.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Xavi Gimenez; editor, Luis de la Madrid; music, Roque Banos; production designer, Alain Bainee; set decorator, Hector Gil; costume designer, Patricia Monne; sound (Dolby Digital), Albert Manera; digital effects, Filmtez; line producers, Teresa Gefaell, Javier Arsuaga; assistant director, Daniela Forn; second unit camera, Oscar Faura; casting, Pep Armengol, Wendy Brazington, Sheila Jaffe. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 19, 2004. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Trevor - Christian Bale Stevie - Jennifer Jason Leigh Marie - Aitana Sanchez-Gijon Ivan - John Sharian Miller - Michael Ironside Jackson - Larry Gilliard Jones - Reg E. Cathey Mrs. Shike - Anna Massey
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