Brad Anderson's The Machinist [El Maquinista] was poised to become a cult favorite the day it was released. It's one of those films that is quite niche at its core but just happened to be the right film at the right time, thus granting it a much wider audience than expected. Seeing these films years after their initial release though, it's hard to gauge up front whether they've survived the test of time. These rewatches are always somewhat of a gamble, luckily The Machinist isn't just a relic that thrives on long-gone hypes. We're now 15 years later and the true quality of the film is finally starting to shine through.
If you ever wondered why the film is sometimes referred to as El Maquinista, it's because The Machinist is in fact a Spanish production using American talent in all its front-facing positions. The actual production, cinematography, score, editing are handled by Spanish talent, while director, writer and principal actors are all American. It's a sneaky but effective trick to grant your film a broader international appeal without going full Hollywood, though you still need talented people to pull it off of course (I'm looking at you Italy).
Brad Anderson is one of those talented people. If I haven't written too much about him yet it's because Anderson has a little trouble making a true stand-out film, on the other hand I haven't seen anything bad from him yet either. He's a very consistent director even though themes and genres can vary wildly between projects, there's an undeniable base quality there that becomes more apparent with every film I see from him. The Machinist is his moment of glory so far, though I wouldn't be surprised if some time in the future Anderson will crank out another gem.
The plot revolves around a factory worker suffering from insomnia. The guy hasn't slept in weeks, he's losing weight at an alarming rate and his solitary life style means he can't really talk to anybody about his problems, safe a hooker he visits once in a while. His lack of sleep is starting to affect his work performance and to make things worse, someone keeps sneaking into his apartment, leaving "hangman" post-its on his fridge. And that's when he meets Ivan, a new worker in the factory who seems to be turning up wherever he goes.
Stylistically, the dark and gloomy color palette is the main attraction here. The film is coated with a grim and greasy veil that even manages to cover up the comfortable warmth of all-sunny outdoor scenes. It's a good look for a film like this, as it perfectly matches the frail and numbed mental state of the main character. The editing is snappy and the camera work on point, making for an overall attractive package, even though it doesn't really match the traditional definition of beauty.
The soundtrack is equally fitting. Never too epic or outspoken, always mysterious and foreboding. It's definitely not the most original choice of music and it's not even a very memorable selection of tracks, but it blends well with the rest of the film and it does its part to enhance the overall atmosphere. If I sound a bit more lenient than usual, it's because I've seen too many similar films ruined (at least in part) because of ill-fitting scores and luckily that isn't the case here. It's a solid soundtrack, nothing more, nothing less.
And then there is Christian Bale, who delivers one of the best performances in his career. He went all out for this part, losing an unhealthy amount of weight just to give the best physical performance possible. And it paid off, because Bale is creepy as hell. He's a sight to behold and mystifies from start to finish. The rest of the cast is great too, with Jennifer Jason Leigh and John Sharian as absolute stand-outs in secondary parts. Even so, their performances are completely eclipsed by Bale's presence.
The Machinist is a bit of a mindfuck, that means the final 30 minutes feature quite a few twists and turns. While effective and well executed, consecutive viewings can be a little less exciting because a part of the mystery is gone after the first watch. The atmosphere and styling make sure that there are things to come back to though. The dark, mysterious vibe exists beyond the narrative and revisiting the film means revisiting the thick and sluggish life of an insomniac, which is an event in itself.
Brad Anderson did well here. While many of its peers have trouble keeping themselves standing the second time around, The Machinist thrives on a strong and gloomy atmosphere, intriguing characters and a stand-out performance. It's a film that goes beyond its novelty value and delivers a solid experience. It's a shame Anderson never managed to repeat this little trick, but he's a talented director and it's nice to know he managed to make the best of his talents at least once. The Machinist should be an easy recommend, especially when you like mysteries.