There are performers so committed to their craft that they're willing to go to any length to embody their characters. Robert De Niro gained a staggering sixty pounds during the 'Raging Bull' shoot to convert Jake LaMotta from a young, chiseled boxer to a careless has-been. Charlize Theron put on thirty pounds and masked her beauty behind layers of riddled prosthetics to become Aileen Wuornos in 'Monster.' And who could forget Edward Norton's turn as the swastika-branded neo-Nazi in 'American History X' -- a make-or-break career gamble that required thirty pounds of extra muscle, diatribes of racist rhetoric, and a daily regimen of offensive tattoos.
Yet none of those transformations was as dangerous or effective as the one Christian Bale endured to become a mentally unstable insomniac in 'The Machinist.' In six months time, Bale shed a mind-blowing sixty-three pounds to literally become a malnourished, skeletal wisp of a man. Sound like a cheap gimmick to give a struggling film an edge? Believe me, it's not. 'The Machinist' hinges on Bale's physical sacrifice, allowing the brilliant actor to deliver a far more disturbing look into his character's psyche than would have been possible otherwise.
'The Machinist' tells the twisted tale of Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale), an industrial worker who hasn't slept in over a year. His chronic insomnia has left his body emaciated, his co-workers suspicious, and his personal life in shambles. Shortly after he's blamed for a machinery accident that claims the arm of a co-worker (Michael Ironside), Reznik begins having hallucinations, finding bizarre Post-it notes on his refrigerator, and questioning his sanity. He searches for answers anywhere they can be found -- in the arms of a prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the love of a kind waitress (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), or the friendship of her son, Nicholas (Matthew Romero). As his hallucinations become more intense, Reznik desperately struggles to uncover the source of his mental breakdown and undo its damage before he winds up dead.
Director Brad Anderson ('Session 9,' 'Happy Accidents') crafts Reznik's extraordinary quest into an unsettling psychodrama that defies genre conventions. Anderson doesn't portray Reznik as a hero of any sort -- he seems to tell us that the character deserves pity, but little more. I instinctively understood that Anderson didn't necessarily want me to like or root for Reznik. If anything, the director worked to ensure I could never let go and entirely trust any of the characters in the film. By the time the end credits rolled around, I was too caught up in the mystery to scrutinize the implications of Reznik's revelations. Anderson essentially eliminates the natural desire to bond with his main character, subverting viewer expectations and eliciting emotions we don't often feel when watching a film, insecurity and doubt.
It's Christian Bale's body-morphing turn as Reznik that gives the film its real resonance. I couldn't get over the effect the actor's appearance had in making every scene uncomfortable and disquieting. Since I'm familiar with Bale's usual look, his fragile frame in 'The Machinist' injects a feeling of dread into otherwise run of the mill interactions. His physical appearance allows Anderson to tell the story without getting hung up by Reznik's exact condition or any lengthy expositional information. Factor in the actor's weak gestures, sunken eyes, and defeated demeanor, and you have a character that instantly grabs your attention from the moment he steps on screen. His hallucinations and waking nightmares quickly emerge as a secondary threat when compared to Reznik's own failing health.
Is the flick perfect? Not quite. Unfortunately, it's biggest flaw lies in its final revelation. Unlike more intriguing twisters from directors like David Lynch, 'The Machinist' is all too eager to wrap its symbols, metaphors, and explanations into a succinct package that feels a bit too conclusive. For all of the film's hallucinogenic stylings and mysteries, Reznik's condition can be traced back to an event that doesn't feel as connected to his breakdown as the story would suggest. Don't get me wrong, the ending is still satisfying and thankfully relies on several, well paced twists and turns in the story, rather than one big "gotcha" moment.
'The Machinist' is a dark and brooding cinematic head-trip that features a gut-wrenching performance from Christian Bale. The film's strong script, arresting cinematography, and unsettling tone match his efforts scene for scene, creating something wholly unique. Bale's extreme commitment to his role elevates the film to another level -- I doubt it would feel nearly as significant without him.
After recently digging through a pile of mediocre Japanese HD DVD imports, I literally sat in stunned silence when I popped in 'The Machinist.' Its 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is incredibly sharp, intricately detailed, and manages to create a convincing illusion of depth matched only by the best HD transfers on the market. Considering how bleached and colorless the film's palette happens to be, it's a wonder that 'The Machinist' still seems so vibrant. Packed with inky blacks, harsh blues, and natural (albeit pale) fleshtones, the transfer vaults past the heavily-compressed domestic DVD and outclasses its SD counterpart's drab picture. Detail is exceptional, revealing every last element of the machine shop and providing the image with amazing three-dimensionality. The shadows are intentionally overpowering, but textures on skin, hair, clothing, and metal still have a distinct pop that pushes this import to the head of the pack.
The only thing that detracts from the experience is a fair amount of noticeable edge enhancement. While issues like artifacting, source noise, and posterization are nowhere to be found, the post-processing team seems to have gone a bit overboard in their efforts to boost the clarity of the image. The EE certainly doesn't ruin the presentation (I've seen far more intrusive edge halos), but it does swat the picture away from the level of perfection. Regardless, 'The Machinist' import offers up an exquisite transfer that will make fans more than pleased with their investment.
Despite complaints of synching issues that have popped up on a few import message boards, I didn't encounter any technical problems with the English language Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround track (640 kbps) featured on this Japanese HD DVD. Dialogue is crisp and well prioritized, dynamics are strong and weighty, and the rear surrounds regularly grabbed my attention. Low-end LFE pulses drive the equipment in Reznik's shop and the steady whump whump of machinery belts sounds stable and realistic. Don't be fooled by the low key nature of the setup, 'The Machinist' is a psychological thriller that uses an aggressive sound design to amp up the tension. As it stands, the soundfield is open and involving from beginning to end, reinforcing the impressive fidelity of the mix.
I do have a few nitpicks, but nothing that inhibits the overall impact of the audio package. Pans are a bit stocky -- sound effects occasionally seem to hop from one speaker to the next, rather than gliding. It doesn't help that accuracy is lacking at times, placing intense elements in multiple channels rather than where they necessarily belong. Still, while 'The Machinist' could definitely benefit from a TrueHD or DTS HD MA track on its eventual domestic release, this HD DVD import sounds great and effectively establishes a high quality aural experience.
(Note that the disc's Japanese subtitles appear by default -- simply access the audio menu to turn them off.)
The Japanese HD DVD import of 'The Machinist' ports over all of the video content from the domestic DVD version, but excludes the exceedingly thorough director's commentary. Having trouble finding the supplemental content in the Japanese menus? The "Special Features" button is the one on the far right side of the main menu. Just be warned: the "Cast and Crew Bios" get their own tab and submenu -- if you find yourself faced with hundreds of words in Japanese text, head back to the main menu and try again.
'The Machinist' is a fascinating film that features one of the most disturbing performances I've seen in recent memory. While director Brad Anderson's head-trip doesn't strike the bizarre heights of a David Lynch masterpiece, it still has a lot to offer fans of psychological thrillers. This Japanese HD DVD import is worth the investment as well. With no domestic release date on the horizon, this is a great way to experience 'The Machinist' with a stunning video transfer and an impressive Dolby Digital Plus track. It doesn't include the domestic DVD's audio commentary, but it throttles its standard definition counterpart in every other way. If you don't mind stumbling through the Japanese language menus, this import HD DVD will make a great addition to your high-def library.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.