The Machinist (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's notes

SPOILERS (no revelation of the major secret, but enough info to spoil some elements)

The machinist is a man who has not slept in a year, and his mind is disappearing as fast as his body. His life is unraveling. His lack of sleep makes him dangerous on the highways, and even more dangerous in a workplace filled with enormous machines. We can see that something happened a year ago to start this snowball down the machinist's mental hill, but we cannot see exactly what it is. We are allowed looks into his subconscious in the form of his delusions, and within those imaginary episodes are clues to the events which precipitated his instability, but the mystery is shrouded by the fact that we are trapped inside his mind, and have no way to know when he's thinking clearly and when he's delusional.

Critical opinion was sharply divided on The Machinist. The reviews generally focused on some combination of these four things:

1) A brilliant performance by the 190 pound Brit Christian Bale as a 130 pound American. He's a good actor to begin with; he's very good with accents; and he actually lost 63 pounds on a daily diet which consisted of one can of tuna and one apple. Bale looked frighteningly skeletal.

2) Plot similarities to Memento and Fight Club. There is a character named "Ivan" who can be seen only by the machinist himself. As many reviewers noted, that portion of the secret was obvious, a bit clumsy, and quite derivative of Fight Club. On the other hand, the identity of "Ivan" was only part of the mystery, and I thought the rest of the details were handled quite cleverly.

3) Explicit ugliness and gore. The Philadelphia Daily News said, "The movie is ingeniously designed. It is also repulsive and I wish I hadn't seen it."

4) The fact that the double secret probationary ending was too obviously foreshadowed and/or revealed earlier in the film

There's plenty of truth in all of those statements. I did catch on to the secret (or at least a big chunk of it) early in the film, but that didn't keep me from enjoying the way in which it was revealed. In fact, when I looked back on the film, I felt that the film's author had done quite a clever job at showing how the lead character's delusions were oblique reflections of his suppressed memories.

It's a grim and depressing movie, and is certainly not a wide-audience popcorn kind of experience. It is fundamentally a very arty and depressing episode of The Twilight Zone stretched to feature length. As noted by the critics, it's similar to but not as cool as Fight Club. It's also similar to but not as original as Memento. Given its grim tone and the fact that many people viewed it as derivative, The Machinist was shoveled into mini-arthouse theatrical distribution, and did virtually no box office. It won't do much better on video, because the high-volume Blockbuster in my neighborhood did not even order one copy of the DVD for rental  - despite the fact that the film stars Christian Bale and came out on video the same day as the world premiere of Batman! 

I don't mean to imply that the film's narrow appeal indicates a lack of quality. Not at all. The Machinist has an intriguing story, and is performed well, especially by Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Michael Ironside. I was not only hooked into the mystery plot, but I also admired all the work that went into the film's sights and sounds. The director, the cinematographer, and the composer managed to do an excellent job on the look and tone of the film, allowing the audience to share the machinist's distorted perspective. The script allowed the audience to understand more about the delusion than the machinist could understand, yet not too much more. By never fully pulling away the veil of madness, the director allowed the mystery to unravel at the proper pace. Although I can see why the film would be unattractive to most filmgoers, I thought it was terrific.



  • widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1
  • full-length director's commentary
  • featurette "The Machinist: Breaking the Rules"
  • eight deleted scenes



  • Jennifer Jason Leigh shows her breasts as she lies in bed next to the machinist

Tuna's notes

Scoopy did a good job of walking the fine line between discussing the plot of this film and revealing too much, so I see no point in repeating that exercise.

The Machinist was written on spec by Scott Kosar out of film school, and made the Hollywood rounds. Eventually, Brad Anderson attached himself to the project and started looking for financing. He finally had to go to Spain to make the film. The producers wanted to use local Spanish talent for minor roles and then dub, but Anderson resisted, and hired mostly expatriate Americans and Brits, with Aitana Sanchez-Gijon rounding out the cast.

It garnered many awards and nominations for the look and feel and for Christian Bale's uncanny commitment to the part. Bale not only lost a full third of his body weight to play this role, but managed a perfect American accent, and Jennifer Jason Leigh supported him with a fine performance as the stereotypical hooker with a heart of gold.

In polar contrast to Scoopy, who liked it and could see why many people would not, I didn't like it so much but can see why many would. I often dislike overly dark material, and I don't like the constant feeling that the director is playing games with me. This sort of manipulation works much better for me when the director does it the way he did in Fight Club, where I had no idea I was being tricked through the entire film, but on watching it a second time, saw that all the subtle clues were there. In The Machinist, the manipulation was too obvious, and therefore a turnoff. In the opening scene, we see Bale unroll a carpet containing a body into the water. There is no doubt, as we see shoes and ankles sticking out of the blanket. This is the first clue not to believe a thing the director shows.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus, just less than three stars. James Berardinelli 3/4. Roger Ebert 3/4, BBC 3/5

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. Although the film was produced for a modest $5 million, it grossed only a million in mini-arthouse distribution. It made it onto 122 screens in Italy, but only 72 in the United States.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. It's a cult film for lovers of dark psychological mysteries, and it may stretch a thin premise out a bit too long, but it's a keeper. It's the kind of thing Serling and Hitchcock would be doing today, given the current levels of screen explicitness which those two men never knew.

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