Blu-Ray Review: The Machinist

If any low-budget movie ever justified the Blu-ray format, it's The Machinist ($29.99), one of the most distinctive-looking thrillers of this century. And that's not all that's distinctive about it. As explained on the (spoiler-intensive) commentaries and making-of mini-documentaries, screenwriter Scott Kosar's debut screenplay was so dark and creepy it spent years getting rejected by studios, despite their attraction to Kosar's sharp writing and, well, dark and creepy vision. Few movies are so palpably rooted in Kafka and Dostoyevsky (specifically, The Double).

And few directors are more rooted in Hitchcock and Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari than Brad Anderson, the only one with the cojones to shoot Kosar's story without yielding to studio urges for a sunnier, less labyrinthine storyline. All thanks, of course, go to the star who made it happen: Christian Bale, who stars as Trevor Reznik, a machinist who hasn't slept in a year because of a mental torment the cause of which you'll have to watch the movie to discover (along with him). Bale lost one-third of his body weight for the gaunt role, and you won't believe how scary he looks at 110 pounds. Hunger and anguish carve giant canyons in his face, which looks stunning in the harsh key lighting of cinematographers Xavi Gimenez and Charlie Jiminez, who make the Barcelona air itself seem starved of color. The place looks like it could be anywhere, or nowhere.

Equally gorgeous on Blu-ray are the stark industrial interiors Anderson found in his Barcelona location -- nothing you'll find in the tourist brochures. It would've cost a mint to create a set so cool, but it was all there in the cavernous, eerily fluorescent-lit machine shop he found in the city's gritty exurbs. The authenticity of the '40s-era machines Bale tends lends dreamlike veracity to his waking nightmare. The mental hospital some scenes are shot in is evocative, too.

Even the limitations of a fairly low-budget film helped sometimes, as in the machine-shop accident that costs a Reznik coworker (Michael Ironside) an arm. Just as the mechanical shark's malfunction is what made Jaws a hit, because it forced Spielberg to create terror via editing instead of gizmos, the bad performance of Ironside's prosthetic mangled arm forced Anderson to concoct a brilliant sequence, assisted by ace acting by Bale and Ironside (who also lost limbs in Total Recall and Starship Troopers -- Anderson jokes that it's part of his standard contract, his character has to lose a limb).

I can't reveal too much about the story without blowing its suspense, but man, does Anderson sustain the spooky mood. It's not so much that he lifts from Hitchcock (though he does nicely reprise the sunglass-wearing-highway-cop-confronting-Janet-Leigh scene from Psycho, gets a nifty performance as Reznik's nosy landlady from Anna Massey, who got killed in Frenzy, and throws in a resonant shower-curtain scene). It's more that Anderson shows he knows that terror doesn't require constant cuts and explosions -- it's scarier when it builds slowly, inexorably. And the Theremin-heavy soundtrack is worthy of its inspiration in Bernard Herrmann's Hitch-flick scores. It sounds sharp on Dolby TrueHD 5.1, though it's not fancy sonically.

Bale's acting isn't just a scarecrow-starvation stunt; it's precise, excruciating, exhilarating. In his first scene, his headless back looks like a monster with a spiky spine, like a spawn of Alien. He manages to get you inside his uncomfortable skin as he feverishly tries to solve the mystery of his own life, like the guy in Memento, helped by little yellow post-it notes to jog his foggy memory. (The ones that note his diminishing weight are accurate.) Jennifer Jason Leigh is affecting as a hooker who falls for Reznik but can't reverse his paranoid spiral. As Bale's mysterious nemesis, John Sharian looks like a cross between Brando in Apocalypse Now and Michael Chiklis in The Shield.

I wish the solution to the mystery of Reznik's identity were as good as everything that leads up to it. It is a bit pat, alas. But before you go complaining and wishing it were up to David Lynch standards, remember: David Lynch doesn't bother to resolve his stories. As Elmore Leonard said, "I don't think [Lynch] knows who killed Laura Palmer." At least The Machinist makes sense after its tangly plot strands resolve.

The extras are bare-bones (appropriately enough), but very intelligent: Anderson's commentary track, the eloquently revelatory 23-minute Manifesting The Machinist, the 13-minute The Machinist: Hiding in Plain Sight, which explains the clues and symbols, a 25-minute making-of doc, and eight deleted scenes, only two with the director's explanatory comments that make them worth watching. But the movie as a whole is definitely worth watching. And don't watch the other stuff until you've seen the film, or you'll spoil it.

The Machinist is available now from Paramount Pictures.