I usually try to avoid watching a film again unless it’s been more than ten years since I last saw it and then it’s usually a film that I’ve rated 10/10 to see if I still think it deserves that rating. Not only do I feel this film deserves that rating but it is among my top ten favorite films along with Eraserhead, Donnie Darko, Koyaanisqatsi, Psycho, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Notice that all those films were made either outside the Hollywood studio system or by directors within the system who had complete artistic control. No studio in Hollywood would touch The Machinist: “Too small and dark for us.” “Make it more understandable.” “Take out the bleakness.” “Make it more commercial.” I understand that production companies must make a profit in order to survive but the result is so much forgettable rubbish. And it seems that’s just what the majority of the movie-going public wants. I just took a look at the top grossing films for 2018. Mostly superhero garbage. Not a single film I’d consider watching.
The Machinist was produced by a Spanish company and filmed in Barcelona. One of the caveats of the deal was that the cast must include a Spanish actor in a major role. The lovely Aitana Sánchez-Gijón was chosen to play Marie, the little boy’s mother and waitress at the airport coffee shop. Not a bad deal as she enhances the film in more ways than one. The film ended up making a three million dollar profit.
Of course the most fundamental thing that makes this film great is Scott Kosar’s clever screenplay. “I knew I wanted to try to write a movie that was in the spirit of Kafka, Dostoyevsky. An existential story about a man in a crisis who is undergoing a horrible odyssey.” References to Dostoyevsky are peppered throughout the film, a copy of The Idiot on Trevor’s Table, the words “Crime and Punishment” appear on the Route 666 ride, the little boy’s epileptic seizure. The film really needs to be watched more than once because you will miss all the clues along the way unless you already know how it ends.
Director Brad Anderson and Spanish composer Roque Baños studied Hitchcock’s films in preparation for making this film and though it feels sacrilegious to say so, I think this is a better film than anything Hitchcock made even though I’ve given a few of his films top ratings. Like many of Hitchcocks’s films it’s a thriller that involves mistaken identity but it is also a heart-wrenching tragedy leading to a catharsis that you don’t find in Hitchcock. I love Psycho but it doesn’t elicit the emotional response from me that The Machinist does. One of the things that I like about Psycho is the atmosphere it creates, the feeling that you’ve entered into an unfamiliar, eerie but fascinating world. Anderson also succeeds at this and that was his intention: “The plot is one thing but what’s more important to me was the tone of this film, the sense of, the feeling of the movie. The kind of uneasiness, the disconcerting feel of the film. And so much of that comes of course from the way it looks but also for me the music was essential.” Indeed, just as he channeled Hitchcock’s visual style, Baños seems to have channeled Bernard Herrmann’s musical sensibilities right down to the use of the theremin.
And I mustn’t overlook Christian Bale’s contributions to the project. Not only was his enthusiasm for the role one of the big reasons the film found a producer but his dedication to realizing Kosar’s vision of Trevor as a walking skeleton led him to lose over 60 pounds which made his performance so believably disturbing. Sadly, it seems this was a one-off for Anderson who has been directing mostly for television since this film though I admit I haven’t seen any of his other feature films.