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Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005
Insomniac's waking dream gets deep inside your head
Director Brad Anderson's "The Machinist" is the latest entry in the growing "bad trip" genre, which includes films such as "Jacob's Ladder," "Lost Highway" or "Fight Club." You know that something's terribly wrong but can't immediately put your finger on what it is. Like those films, "The Machinist" is twisted, paranoid and dark as hell.
When I interviewed the director, a fellow New Englander, a few months back in Shibuya, I told him that although I couldn't say I "enjoyed" his film, I was glad I saw it. It's intense, like a nightmare you can't wake up from, and you sure feel relieved when it's over. Anderson chuckled and more or less agreed: "It's one of those movies that gets under your skin, hopefully. It's kind of like a toothache; it hurts, but it also feels good to press it a little, both painful and pleasurable at the same time."
Christian Bale stars as Trevor Reznick (Nine Inch Nails fans may snicker here), a factory worker who's suffering from a marathon case of insomnia. He hasn't slept for months, and it shows in his dazed demeanor, sunken eyes and especially in his gaunt, painfully thin physique. Bale -- who is perhaps best known for "American Psycho," and will star in the upcoming "Batman" film -- is almost unrecognizable given the amount of weight he's lost.
"I never expected Christian to look the way he did for this film," Anderson admitted. "I knew he would lose some weight, because it was how the guy was described in the script, but I didn't think he was going to lose 63 pounds [27 kg.]!"
Indeed, many critics -- especially in the States, where thinness is inevitably viewed with suspicion -- couldn't get beyond the extreme nature of Bale's physical transformation. "It is startling, and a bit of a novelty, but it's integral to the story," Anderson said, "You need to know the moment that you see this man that something's tormenting him."
Did the director ever worry that his star was going too far with it? "A little, maybe," says Anderson. "But he reassured me he wasn't going to go over the limit. He was always in this calm, blissful, Zen-like state . . . mostly because he was trying to conserve his energy."
"The Machinist" starts off with an air of suspicious dread, and slowly pirouettes into madness. Reznick is so addled from lack of sleep; it's hard to tell what is real and what is imaginary. Reznick wanders between work, has a tryst with an indulgent hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and chats with an all-night cafe waitress (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) as he stares into coffee cups until dawn. Then comes his encounter with Ivan (John Sharian), a suspicious figure who provokes Trevor into causing a (really gnarly) industrial accident, and generally messes with his head.
With his biker's build, gleaming bald pate and mocking, malevolent smile, Ivan is reminiscent of the demons who appear in David Lynch films, like the Mystery Man in "Lost Highway," or the Cowboy in "Mulholland Drive." "I was going for someone who felt a bit too good to be true, hyper-realistic," Anderson said of his casting decision. "In part to reinforce the idea: Is this guy even real? Right from the start I wanted the audience to wonder what was up with this guy."
The first scene where Ivan appears, his head suddenly popping up in Trevor's passenger-seat window, framed against a cloud-filled sky with his eyes masked by sunglasses, is more than a little unsettling. If it looks familiar, there's a reason: "You know the scene in 'Psycho,' where Janet Leigh gets pulled over by the cop as she's heading to the Bates Motel? There's this one shot of the cop looking in at her, and he's perfectly framed, symmetrically, right in the middle," Anderson explained. "He's just staring straight at the camera, but you can't tell because he's wearing shades. There's something really menacing about that."
For Anderson, however, such little homages are the exception. "When I make a movie I try not to consciously mimic, except for the occasional shot," he said. "I don't want to be one of those filmmakers that's dropping in little hip film references all over the place. Although I think some of that emerges naturally when you make movies. You admire certain films and just kind of subconsciously emulate them. You don't always notice those influences in your own work, often other people point them out."
The film picks up steam when Trevor becomes increasingly paranoid that his coworkers are trying to kill him, in revenge for the limb-mangling accident he caused. It becomes increasingly hard to tell what is delusion and what is actually happening as bits of Trevor's past bubble up into the present, and certain words and events seem to keep cycling around. That's also true of the film as a whole: Trevor's use of Post-It notes to keep track of his dazed daily life echoes "Memento," while the blood dripping from the fridge recalls "Chasing Sleep." As the director mentioned above, this is probably intentional; nevertheless, the sense of deja vu remains.
Most effective in vamping up the unease is the tightly controlled look Anderson and cinematographer Xavi Gimenez achieved on the film, with interiors bathed in sickly green light and locations that feel exaggerated and ominous. "We were going for something, overall, that had not so much a dreamlike, but nightmarish feel to it. But a subtle nightmare," Anderson said. "We wanted a very moody look for this movie, very contrasty, where you leave to the audience to imagine [what is happening] in the darker, shadowy parts of the frame. The reason we pulled out a lot of the color and gave it this monochromatic look was based on the notion of insomnia, that somebody who hasn't slept for a very long time loses the capacity to see bright colors. We wanted the audience to experience the world in the way Trevor does, this kind of drab, fatigued reality.
"The look of the production design was really informed by the fact that we shot in Barcelona. It's ostensibly set in America, but we ended up shooting in Spain for financial reasons, so we had to try and create some version of L.A. in Barcelona. And I think by doing that, it kind of turned out to be this generic, non place. It creates this kind of alienating quality, timeless and placeless."
People who know Anderson from his earlier film, "Next Stop, Wonderland," which did well in Tokyo, may be expecting a more improvisational style from Anderson, as opposed to the "calculated" approach here. The director admitted that no matter how organized you are, there's always "a bit of making it up on the spot." However, he's quick to add, "as a filmmaker, as I get more experienced, I'm finding that I don't want to shoot a lot, I want to think it out and make clear-cut decisions.
"At the end of the day, what's the director if he's not the person saying put the camera here, this is where it's gotta be. As opposed to, say, Lars von Trier, who'll use 100 cameras. That seems absurd to me."