Graveyard shift

Atmospheric thriller loses steam in The Machinist

The Machinist has a plodding, chiller plot that can't decide if it's highbrow or low as it moves between Kafkaesque navel-gazing and "Twilight Zone" supernatural.

The most startling aspect of the film is not its storyline, with echoes of Hollywood schlock such as Jacob's Ladder. It's most remarkable distinction is purely physical: the stylized looks of the film itself and of its lead, Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale).

Bale lost 60 pounds to play the troubled, emaciated Reznik, an acting feat likened to other extreme physical transformations like Charlize Theron's dramatic weight gain for Monster. But there is something culturally idiosyncratic about Bale's weight loss, with its stereotypically British emphasis on self-denial and self-restraint. Bale's achievement seems as singularly British as the prototypically American excess Robert De Niro demonstrated when he gained weight to play Raging Bull's Jake La Motta.

But Bale's grotesque weight loss is a perpetual distraction as his protruding bones appear to saw through his flesh. Instead of contributing to the reality of the film, the camera's endless fetishy explorations of Bale's body keep taking viewers out of it.

Reznik is a machinist whose entire world is tinctured in the steely blues of a purgatorial metal shop where he and his co-workers keep getting their limbs mangled in the lurking, demonic cogs. Sunlight is an impossibility in the gray zone, which marries striking comic book hyperbole with film noir flourishes and a nearly silly theremin trill every time the going gets spoooooky.

Brad Anderson's film is most memorable for its iconoclastic visual appeal, defined by cloud banks that hover menacingly overhead; a vaguely retro, 1940s landscape of modernist airport coffee shops; and waitresses in crisp white aprons proffering pie and a shoulder to cry on.

Suffering from some bizarre mix of Lady Macbeth neurosis and teenage eating disorder, Reznik washes himself obsessively with bleach and lye, scrubs his bathroom floor with a toothbrush, claims not to have slept for a year and has the physical presence of a concentration camp victim.

Clearly, something is haunting Reznik, which may or may not have to do with the Bayou-drawling shrimp trash Ivan (John Sharian), who appears at the factory one day but seems invisible to everyone but Reznik. A dead ringer for Marlon Brando's gone-native Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Ivan drives a blood red muscle car and has the cockeyed grin of an E.C. Comics grim reaper.

Ivan may also be responsible for the taunting Post-It Notes (the one stupidly contemporary touch in an otherwise meticulously designed film) that keep appearing in Reznik's apartment, goading his fragile grip on sanity.

Anderson's film (a significant departure from his earlier endearing indie phase in Next Stop Wonderland), is often reminiscent of last year's Spider, David Cronenberg's similarly stylized attempt to transpose onto scenery the inner workings of a character's mind. Reznik's only help as he tries to figure out his predicament are two visions of light and dark, a hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a single mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijòn), offering two different destinies in a film riddled with forks in the road.

But instead of the schizophrenia that consumed Spider's hero, Reznik seems trapped within a flatter, routine, more thriller-rigged Hollyweird world. The film's obsession is perpetually plunging the audience into the next roller coaster dip, and keeping them guessing about what lies around the corner rather than providing an empathetic window into the character's alienation. Whether he is angel or devil is the question that lurks lethargically at the storyline's margins.

The Machinist is the kind of story that probably sounded great on paper, with its mounting sense of dread and spooky flourishes like a refrigerator oozing some problematic fluid. But writer Scott Kosar's psychological thriller is relatively lifeless onscreen, taking an eternity to pull together the pieces. Its final revelation is a small reward for viewers' patience.