Christian Bale’s 63-pound weight loss for his role in The Machinist (2004) may take the cake (or is it a diet wafer?) as an example of an actor’s starving for his art. To play Trevor Reznik, the skeletal insomniac who stalks through this bleak psychological thriller, this buff star of American Psycho reduced himself to a walking 120-pound cadaver.
This hollow-eyed apparition is such a disturbing sight that he isn’t likely to inspire a stampede of publishers bidding for “Christian Bale’s Rapid Weight-Loss Program,” although in an age when they say you can’t be too rich or too thin, that might not be the case. Mr. Bale’s transformation makes Robert De Niro’s ballooning up for Raging Bull and Charlize Theron’s metamorphosis in Monster, not to mention Tom Hanks’s slimming down for Cast Away, look easy.
Mr. Bale’s appearance is the crowning touch that makes The Machinist, directed by Brad Anderson (Session 9) from a screenplay by Scott Kosar, one of the few movies to scale the barrier between chilly fantasy and authentic cinematic nightmare. The actor backs up his stunt with a performance that builds to a pinnacle of savage fury and desperation.
Filmed in washed-out bluish gray, slashed with shades of red, The Machinist is a self-enclosed mechanism as hermetically sealed as the increasingly paranoid state that grips Trevor. The desaturated color and high-tension editing evoke a desiccated psychic environment devouring itself. The paranoia is underscored by Roque Baños”s shivery, theremin-laced score, which alludes to Miklos Rozsa’s music for Spellbound.
Trevor hasn’t slept for a year. His weight loss and sleeplessness have led his bosses in the machine factory where he works to suspect him of drug addiction. Bleary eyed and beyond exhaustion, he is in no condition to handle heavy machinery. One day, distracted by the gaze of a thuggish stranger whom he catches grinning at him from across the shop, Trevor accidentally starts the drill press, causing a colleague, Miller (Michael Ironside), to lose an arm.
That glowering stranger, Ivan (John Sharian), whose existence no one else acknowledges, becomes the linchpin in the elaborate conspiracy closing in on Trevor. Ivan cruises the streets in a 1969 Pontiac Firebird, tempting Trevor to follow him in high-speed car chases in which Ivan inevitably eludes his pursuer. At home in his clammy apartment, where a copy of Dostoevsky’s Idiot sits by his bed, Trevor discovers taunting signs scrawled on Post-it’s stuck to his refrigerator.