By now, the extreme, grotesque weight loss actor Christian Bale went through in order to play the emaciated lead role in this indie freak-fest is the stuff of movie legend: 63 pounds off his buff, Batman-ready 185-pound frame. Forget Robert De Niro bulking up for Raging Bull or Renée Zellweger scarfing Twinkies for Bridget Jones — in this age of Atkins-centrism, maximum loss is the real accomplishment. Still, one wonders if Bale’s hunger strike in the name of art would be all that shocking were he a Hollywood actress. In every frame of the film, you can see his ribs poking through his thin skin, his sternum jutting out from under his shirt, his elbows looking as if they’re going to snap every time he bends his arm — but then, couldn’t the same thing be said of Zelwegger in Chicago?

Bale’s anorexic stunt provides the film with a great marketing hook: He is his own special effect. By the time The Machinist’s so-what conclusion limps around, however, audiences will be forgiven for thinking all the effort was for naught. Set in an oppressive, postindustrial wasteland that seems caught between the ’70s and a fascist near-future, the film concerns one Trevor Reznik (Bale), a humorless grunt eking out a meager existence in a dehumanizing factory. Every night he returns to his drab, Eastern bloc apartment to soak his pores under buzzing fluorescent light and engage in tubercular, stick-figure sex with his kindly hooker neighbor Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Trevor hasn’t slept for weeks, which may or may not explain the threatening Post-it notes that appear on his wall, the blood that drips from his freezer, or the fleshy, razor-toothed man he’s convinced is stalking him.

Movies about psychological crackups are generally loads of fun, at least for as long as the filmmakers can believably delay the inevitable “it’s all in his head” moment. David Cronenberg milked considerable mileage out of a delusional, stuttering Ralph Fiennes in 2002’s arty, cerebral Spider, and back in the ’70s, Roman Polanski gave us psychotic visions of severed heads bouncing around like basketballs in his wacked-out pet project The Tenant. If director Brad Anderson isn’t quite the equal of those masters — he’s more of an understudy to David Fincher on Fight Club — he at least manages to give his film a stunning, bleached-out visual scheme and a few welcome moments of macabre humor. Unfortunately, the copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot that sits on Trevor’s coffee table points to more ambitious aspirations from screenwriter Scott Kosar, the same man responsible for desecrating, er, rewriting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003. No matter how muscular the performances and production design, when The Machinist’s big revelation finally comes around, it’s clear Kosar doesn’t have enough ideas to flesh out a half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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