The following was delivered as part of a panel discussion for the Geelong-based Cinema Paideia. If you’re in the area, you should definitely check it out!
Trevor Reznick can’t sleep, and is quite thin. He’s not so good at remembering, but he’s quite good at forgetting. The director of The Machinist, Brad Anderson, hopes that you’re good at forgetting too – forgetting Fight Club, forgetting Memento, forgetting Lost Highway and so on. My name’s Mitch Cunningham, and I want to talk about The Machinist as a thriller, a ‘psycho-noir’ – in fact, a very familiar kind of film. I want to talk tonight about what the film borrows, what it does right, and why the psychological thriller works the way it does.
I was going to come in here tonight and tell you that The Machinist is a crappy rehash of the kind of psychological thriller that I’ve seen too much of. Post-industrial noirs that reveal themselves to be products of a delusional mind, some kind of cathartic working-through – you know, like The Wizard of Oz. “It was all in his head” is simply a modernist variation on “It was all a dream”, and if you start seeing it too much it’ll very quickly lose its punch. I re-watched the film recently, with this snarky critique in mind, and I was kind of pleasantly surprised. Though The Machinist does borrow heavily from classic and contemporary thrillers, every so often it comes into its own with some well-done, if not entirely fresh, variations on the genre.
For viewers familiar with Fincher’s Fight Club and Memento, or David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, The Machinist can’t help but come off a bit cheesy, especially on a second viewing. Of course Christian Bale’s Trevor Reznick is leaving himself post-it notes. Of course those lingering shots of fish and cars and little kids are ‘clues’. Of course Reznick is forgetting something important. The pop psychology and aesthetic, which one reviewer calls “a prematurely retro exercise in mid-90s industrial goth-grunge abjection”, is like a desaturated version of Lost Highway or Fight Club.
Thankfully, the music is pure Hitchcock, all spooky bells and whistles. Just imagine The Machinist with a soundtrack that matched its aesthetic – hyper-serious industrial guitar stuff – and count yourself lucky we got to hear the film we did. If Trevor Reznick were anything closer to Trent Reznor, we wouldn’t be talking about this film, we’d be laughing at the kind of people who did.
So, what is it about the thrillers of Brad Anderson, David Fincher, David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock that pack that psychological punch? Why is it kind of cool or affecting to realise, time and time again, that what we’ve been seeing is somebody’s delusion? Well, film is a highly subjective medium. Not in the “art is subjective, man” sense of the term, but in the way it taps into the idea of subjectivity – how we see, feel and know the world. As critics like Laura Mulvey and Todd McGowan point out, the appeal of Hollywood storytelling rests on being made to forget that you’re watching a film. You disappear, instead, into the film’s subjective world, as if it weren’t made for your consumption. Art film goes the other way, making damn sure to keep you out of the loop, reminding you that the whole thing is fake with a capital ‘F’.
But the best thing about psychological thrillers is that they can do both – the fact that they’re fictions is what drives their narratives. Every little thing in The Machinist works towards the construction of a delusion –trauma, repetition, re-imagination. Everything is almost mathematically plotted to refer to Reznick’s trauma – fish heads, car chases, hit and runs. Everything appears twice, everything is doubled – Reznick and Ivan, Stevie and Marie etcetera. But most importantly, in order for Reznick to work through his delusions he has to forget that they’re fictions, and to forget why. When the film pulls the ripcord on the whole “It was all in his head” thing, it suddenly resolves too quickly. But the build-up, and the tenor of Reznick’s delusional world, is worth remembering.
So The Machinist plays like Lynch without the silliness or Fincher without the savvy. The narrative, as I’ve suggest, is kind of pedestrian if you’ve seen one too many thrillers. But the cinematography and sound design are highly competent, drawing on the psycho-noir textbook to create a modern world where nasty things can happen. We get a lot of little shots that establish a very contemporary mindset – street signs with ironic double meanings, fixations of coffee cups and glass bowls, pretentious use of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. But the film goes the full Kafka in its industrial sequences, set inside Reznick’s workplace – we get a very Lynchian sense of the danger and uncanniness that haunt machine and machinist alike.
As in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the hero finds personal salvation by imprisoning himself. As in Kafka, his world is already full of little prisons – mental, technological, cultural. We’ve seen this kind of film before. But it is fun to forget.