14 July 2009


Some days, this reviewer is in the mood for a full blown essay.

And others, he feels like writing a Haiku.

However, asking me to stick to a Haiku is akin to asking the torrential Michael Jackson Internet downpourings to stop. Never happen. Unfortunately, I have the attention span of a tornado.

And yet, when you are contemplating a film like “The Machinist”, that plays something like a Haiku, it seems to be the only appropriate critical response. One almost feels obliged to assess the piece according to its own rules of expression.

Think back to the film; if you have it at home, take another look at it. This reviewer gives it a spin three or four times a year, and two things need to be said.

It is common to hear people say, ‘I see something new in that movie every time I watch it’. Well, that is nothing extraordinary; it can be the nature of the beast- the relationship between the medium and the viewer. I see something new in ‘Bridget Jones Diary’ every time I am forced to watch it by the women in my life- doesn’t mean it is a good thing, nor make it a good film.

But the ‘Machinist’…I’ll be damned if I don’t literally see a different film each time. Which is odd, especially given the second thing that needs to be said about the movie, which is that it is actually of fairly simple construction.
Its gift might well be its deceptive simplicity.

To see something new each time you watch ‘Memento’, for example, or ‘Usual Suspects’ is nothing amazing. They are complicated pieces that play with form, structure and narrative, but when you consider that the latter film is a merely a complicated labyrinthine maze populated by equally quirky and enigmatic characters, and the former is a cut and paste job not dissimilar to the cut up’s of Burroughs and Gysin- and when you also consider that they ultimately amount to zero in broad thematic terms- one can take a more considered view of ‘Machinist’.

I am not certain why I place these three films in the same neural category (along with others too numerous to mention here); is it because they all push the boundaries of cinema? Is it because they are seemingly elaborate psychological mazes?

Or are they cinematic sleights of hand- exercises in smoke and mirrors?

Since the days of the ‘Twilight Zone’ and beyond, anything now with a twist ending seems somewhat contrived- no matter how good the ‘twist’. But Brad Anderson’s film is so much more than the sum of its twist. It has a distinct, honourable, resonant climax- where the individual as God, in classical terms, must intervene in order to save himself.
‘Deus Ex Machinist’. Fascinating.

Rather than ‘Waiting for God’, acting in judgement of oneself. God as man. Man as God.

This notion is nothing new to students of Philosophy; but to the mass film audience, it serves as a crucial, probably unique, and- I am sorry to say- far too innovative message for our times, about the importance of morality, accountability, responsibility, and personal liability.

To my mind, this is what distinguishes the ‘Machinist’ from the mentioned, films (and others) when viewed over time, with benefit of hindsight. It is, as has already been observed, an elaborate journey into the mind, the psyche, of a man tortured by his conscience. It is in fact a simple tale, but seems more complex, given the lengths to which we human beings will go to deny our core being, our inner morality.

I saw this film when it first came out with my friend Mike Smith, and at the time I knew I was watching something extremely profound, and significant. But what I did not realise at the time- and only discovered after repeated viewings- was that I would be literally watching a very different film each and every time, albeit one that travels inexorably toward the same inescapable conclusion.

Without fail.

This would be my perfect ‘desert island movie’.

Is this me, or is it the film? Does it matter? The fact that one is even asking such a question says something about the power of the film.

Taken at face value, it has all the elements in place; engaging, utterly perplexing narrative, tremendous production value, excellent- and beautifully tight- script (evoking the suggestion of ‘Haiku-like’ essence and delivery rather than construct- perhaps more appropriately a motion picture Koan), and a range of incredible, haunting performances. Every time Christian Bale, in his paranoid delusion, challenges his workmates for example, I get a chill down my spine; every single time. And to be moved by a movie in such a primal, visceral, physiological way is extremely rare in terms of contemporary cinema.

Much has been said of Christian Bale’s performance; and as extraordinary as he is, and as miraculous his transformation, (an intriguing selling point for the movie) the hype and the larger than life ‘acting’- if you can call it that- can serve to distract us from the other more benign, subtle, less overt aspects of the piece.

This author confesses it took him some time to get over the shock of seeing Christian Bale with his shirt off- it took me at least four viewings to shift my focus from his physique in order to concentrate on the story; but in a way, this is not quite so bad as one might think, given that ‘emaciation’ is the story.

Moral emaciation; to be plagued by conscience, ravaged by guilt to such an extent that one literally wastes away.

Despite all that is going on in the film to distract us, this IS the story.

There is some suggestion that Bale took it upon himself to engage in this course of ‘extreme dieting’ to prepare physically and mentally for the challenge of the role. If this is true, then it was a master stroke. This is method, taken to new- almost life threatening- extremes. I’m not here to slaughter sacred cows (pardon the pun)- but ‘Raging Bull’ is an undeniable classic. Somehow, though, DeNiro as a fat LaMotta doesn’t have quite the same edge, the same truly unsettling and disturbing quality having seen Bale topless. A fat De Niro suggests being well fed, content, satisfied, even jovial; Bale evokes the sense memory of images of the POW camps, and Treblinka- which is appropriate, given the themes of guilt, and plague of conscience.

Except that this time, the wasted, withered protagonist is the guilty party.

And the most shocking thing of all, is that I can identify with this portrait of guilt; I have been that man in my life, perhaps not always in strict literal terms, but I know in my heart I have chewed some of the same dirt.

And my actions today reflect my sense of morality, and accountability accordingly.

I am reminded of this, time and again when I watch the ‘Machinist’. And even when I don’t’. Watching ‘Batman Begins’, filmed soon after, ‘Machinist’, one can still detect the effects of the diet- and possibly even the performance- on the Bale’s face. Indeed, watching any of his movies now evokes the sense memory of the images and message of ‘Machinist’ more often than I care to mention. And in these times of the rampant perversion of morality, and the dissemination of hate, fear, greed and cruelty on an unprecedented scale, this is a good thing.

We need to be constantly reminded of the message of ‘The Machinist’.

We need to take note of this modern day morality play; until we are able, finally to come to terms with ourselves and the consequences of our actions, account for those actions, and in the tradition of all the best endings of all the best films, move on.

Hopefully to bigger and better things, and much happier endings.

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