Hangman, Hangman: Thoughts about THE MACHINIST





Usually young director Brad Anderson writes the scripts for all his films –but after reading Scott Kosar’s script for THE MACHINIST in 2001, he made an exception. He could see a stunning and frightening film in his mind’s eye, something very unique and completely off-center; perhaps too much so. They had to shop around for two years looking for funding. Finally they found a quadrate of producers –but they were Spanish. The solution, of course, was to shoot the movie in Spain with mostly a Spanish crew. Anderson was careful with the settings, casting, and art design –creating a world for the words, a nameless city that could be “Anywhere, U.S.A. ”, pushing a little to resemble the seedier sides of Los Angeles –which was indeed tricky considering they filmed mostly in Barcelona .


Brad Anderson has directed 12 films since 1995, and one of the most notable was NEXT STOP WONDERLAND (1998). He has taught film classes at the Boston Film Foundation. Mostly he has been a director of episodes on series television. So in 2003, he put together a crew in Spain , and began to shoot THE MACHINIST (2004), working from the main character’s point of view (POV) while teasing us with camera angles, set ups, lighting, and intentional echoes of Hitchcock and David Lynch. To deepen the comparisons he had the composer of the musical score emulate strains of Bernard Herrmann, craftily punctuated with electronic music that sounded like pieces of the theme from THE OUTER LIMITS.


Script writer, Scott Kosar, a graduate of both USC and UCLA film schools, has four film credits. Horror is his primary genre. He wrote the script for the umpteenth remake of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASACRE (2003), and the umpteenth remake of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (2005). It would be nice to see more scripts like THE MACHINIST, something with substance, tight and well written. The film, distributed poorly, had to compete in the “Horror” category –winning “Best Picture” from the International Horror Guild. But in my view the movie is a hybrid, a drama with horrific implications, like PSYCHO on mushrooms. The posters and many critics compared it to both MEMENTO (2002) and FIGHT CLUB (1999) –two films not strictly in the horror genre; more representative of the “psychological thriller”.


Todd McCarthy of VARIETY wrote, “The film’s vigor and seriousness warrant further festival play, and the pic could easily develop a cult following.” Actually this cult phenomenon has developed, and the movie has settled into a special niche with film goers and buffs already. Joe Average viewer is somewhat taken aback by the intensity of the action, the realistic gore, the bizarre point of view, the raw emotions, and the rampant reckless paranoia. At the end the director made sure that the film offered closure for all the plot conflicts and mysteries –but even at that when those closing credits rolled it left some of the audience perplexed, somewhat confused, even dazed.


Roger Ebert of THE CHICAGO SUN TIMES wrote, “The cinematography by Xavi Gimenez is all cold slates, blues and grays –the palate of despair. We get to see Trevor’s world so clearly through his eyes that only gradually does it occur to us that every life is seen through a filter.” Ah yes, Sir Roger, and I would add to that that every act of viewing a movie is filtered through our personal perceptions, our specific experiences, and our random prejudices and predispositions. That is probably the primary reason that makes film discussions and film criticism so visceral and engaging. So in THE MACHINIST we have the sensation of watching the film in mostly black and white, very much like Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), and when a bright color like blood red appears it is shocking, almost traumatic –only instead of it being a little girl in a red woolen jacket wandering in Nazis, it is a red Firebird convertible, darting in and out of less colorful traffic. Remember the use of color in the black and white film RUMBLE FISH (1983), where Francis Ford Coppola made some brilliantly colored fish heavily symbolic? Brad Anderson’s camera dwelled mostly in deep shadow, using bright light as a framing device, or as punctuation—as in the “light at the end of a tunnel”; on the carnival ride, in the sewers, in the subway, on the highway, even while walking. The camera burrowed through the haze lost in darkness like a blind mole, repelled by the light –or perhaps the truth.


This somber and grayish tale of Trevor Reznik, of disorientation, catatonia, alienation, terror, conspiracy, denial, and definite paranoia brought to mind several other existential films –like the movie about the put upon Josef K., the Kafka protagonist arrested without charges, adapted and directed by Orson Welles in THE TRIAL (1962) aka LES PROCES, with Anthony Perkins. It was remade by the BBC twenty years later as THE TRIAL (1994), adapted by Harold Pinter, starring Kyle MacLachlan, Anthony Hopkins, and Jason Robards; or perhaps those three Pinter scripts all made into movies starring Robert Shaw, THE CARETAKER (1963), with Donald Pleasence and Alan Bates, THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (1968), and FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE (1970), with Malcolm McDowall; or kicking and screaming into Camus Country with Luciano Visconti’s THE STRANGER (1967), with Marcello Mastroianni, or spend some time with Roman Polanski in THE TENANT (1976), or interface with strangeness and alienation through the efforts of director Terry Gilliam, in films like BRAZIL (1985), THE FISHER KING (1991), and TWELVE MONKEYS (1995), or where PSYCHO meets ALICE IN WONDERLAND in his TIDELANDS (2006); dropping down for cinematic dessert with Steven Soderbergh’s KAFKA (1991), starring Jeremy Irons.


The plot of THE MACHINIST concerns one Trevor Reznik, a machinist who seems to be wandering in a sombulistic haze. He tells the call girl, Stevie, who might be his girlfriend, “I have not slept in a year, but that’s OK. No one has ever died of insomnia.”

Director Anderson pointed out on the DVD comments that no one could actually go for a year without sleeping, and that Reznik dipped his head several times a day, and was immediately asleep, like in the truck when he went for his cigarette break—but he never remembered his “naps”, and what he could remember from his dreaming he confused with reality, heightening the fantastical quality of his new world of unslumber, and moving him unhurriedly into darker places with each sleepless day.


Stevie said, watching him wash up in her bathroom, “If you were any thinner you would cease to exist.” Later his waitress friend, Marie, said exactly the same thing to him, creating a deju vu echo that made Reznik blink and ponder. Trevor is not well liked by his co-workers. He is a loner –sarcastic, irritable, and strange. His supervisors at the machine shop even attempt an intervention, telling him that “he looks like shit,” and that they are worried about him, alarmed at his appearance and behavior. He becomes even more agitated, convinced that they are part of the conspiracy that stalks him, surrounds him. Later, while working, he became distracted by a co-worker miming a knife across the throat, and he backed up accidentally turning on the machine. A fellow employee, Miller, gets his arm caught in the works, and it tears off his fingers, hand, and forearm. Reznik denied the blame, but it marked the beginning of the end to his downward spiral of macabre incidents and bad luck.


At some point past midway in the movie we become plagued by many mysteries, many burning questions. Whose body was it that Reznik was wrapping up in a rug during the opening scene? When he was attempting to dump the body in the industrial sludge of the bay, who was it walking toward him holding a flashlight on his battered face? How did his face become so cut up? Who was sneaking into his apartment and leaving post-it notes on his refrigerator? Why hasn’t the landlady seen any strangers near his place? What caused the terrible smell in his apartment? What secret did the refrigerator hold? Was that blood oozing out around the door, and puddling on the floor? What is the significance of the hangman puzzle? Was his nosy landlady in on the conspiracy? Why does he fixate on the cigarette lighter in his old Dodge pick up? At work, who was Ivan, and why couldn’t any of his co-workers see him or remember him? Why did he specifically distract Reznik just before Miller’s accident? Why didn’t Miller hate him, or stay mad at him post-accident? How did the waitress Marie, and her son, Nicolas, really fit into his life? Why did Marie’s apartment seem “familiar?” to him? Why did several items of hers, in her place, seem so familiar to him? Why did Marie and Nicolas have the same names as two characters he was reading about in Dostoyevsky’s THE IDIOT? Why did Ivan drive that red Pontiac Firebird? Why was Ivan also the victim of a freak industrial accident? In the tunnel during the Route 666 ride, why did young Nicolas turn left into Hell, abandoned Safety? Why in the world were those pornographic shadow images included in that kiddy carnival ride? At the airport café, if he ordered a piece of pie every night, why did he never take a bite of it? Why did he leave a large tip for Marie each night, folding the twenty dollar bills like he did the ones he put in Stevie’s tip jar? Why was he constantly having close calls in that same intersection, and why did he just stop dead in the middle of it that one time? What was the significance of that huge water tower always in the shot near that intersection? While Trevor fled the police in the sewer tunnel, who was the shadow figure in the right-hand tunnel that forced him to go left, into and embracing the darkness? What was the symbolic significance of those three tall smoke stacks, clearly visible from the parking lot of the machine shop, and near where he chose to dump the body; the trinity or three wise men? Was Ivan actually Stevie’s ex-husband? Why would he have left that snapshot of Ivan and Robertson holding that fish in Stevie’s tip jar? Finally who turned on the second machine that Reznik was working on, nearly causing another accident, resulting in his over-the-top outburst, pushing his foreman, and losing his job?


Christian Bale was beyond brilliant as Reznik, reducing his beautiful body to an unrecognizable state, going from a muscular 195 pounds to a frightening 119 pounds, to become a rib-bulging cadaver, one of the walking dead, an Ausweis victim. It was fascinating to watch Bale twist and turn, bob, bend and weave, posing for several skeletal tableaus –knowing just how to present those jutting bones to produce a maximum effect.


We have all watched him grow up in front of the camera. He was only 12 years old when he scored big in Steven Spielberg’s EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987). He then did a fine job as a song and dance man, working with Robert Duvall in Disney’s NEWSIES (1992). He was a Hitler youth and a cool dancer in SWING KIDS (1993). He romanced Winona Ryder in LITTLE WOMEN (1994). He bulked up and muscled his way through AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000), CAPTAIN CORELLI’S MANDOLIN (2001), REIGN OF FIRE (2002), and the very physical character in EQUILIBRIUM (2000). After his incredible weight loss to play Trevor Reznik in THE MACHINIST (2004), he had to get back into fighting weight and buff trim to play a dynamic hero and martial artist in BATMAN BEGINS (2005), maintaining it to play the magician in THE PRESTIEGE (2006). Ironically he shed 30 pounds then to play Dieter Deggler in Werner Herzog’s RESCUE DAWN (2007), and incredibly he is back to buff yet again presently filming THE DARK KNIGHT, his Batman sequel. He was quoted as saying that he lost so much muscle to play Reznik, it was very difficult doing the lifting, fighting, and running scenes.


Working on a modest budget, Brad Anderson had to scour the Spanish hood to find American expatriates and tourists to flesh out his film ala Americana –that and American model cars were harder to find than he expected. Reznik’s old Dodge pick up was such a piece of junk it had to be constantly repaired. It was a lot of work for every outdoor scene to change stop signs, street lights, and street signs. He did, however, manage to bring over three American actors.


Some of the best moments in the film belonged to wonderful actress Jennifer Jason-Leigh, adding another charm to her prostitute’s bracelet playing call girl, Stevie. Leigh is so comfortable in the nude that we forget she is acting, bringing both sensuality and matronly affection into the mix. She dared to like, maybe even almost love that skinny oddball that starved bird with the broken wing –and dared to hope that she could build a new life with him beyond prostitution. During their last scene together when Trevor went over the emotional edge and turned on her like a rabid dog –the deep sadness and pain turning fast to anger on her face was hard to forget, and she accomplished it with marked simplicity, just Jennifer Jason-Leigh “living” in that terrible moment while we watched.


Leigh has appeared in 78 films, many of them for director Robert Altman, since 1973. Like co-star Christian Bale, she was a child star, and we watched her grow up fast on the screen. She started out with a non-speaking part at age 9, and by age 11 had her SAG card. Being the daughter of actor Vic Morrow, it was sad and ironic that the year he died, killed by a helicopter blade while filming John LandisTWILIGHT ZONE: The Movie

(1982), she officially launched her film career with a plum role in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), with Sean Penn. Not adverse to shooting scenes in the nude, she stunned us with her total nakedness in the medieval adventure film, FLESH + BLOOD (1985), with Rutger Hauer. But this was just a breezy warm up for the outrageous part of Tralala, the whore in LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN (1989). In 1991 she was very good in both Ron Howard’s BACKDRAFT and RUSH. She was bright and bitchy in MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE (1994), and excellent in DOLORES CLAIBORNE (1995), with Kathy Bates, Robert Altman’s KANSAS CITY (1996), David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), and THE ROAD TO PERDITION (2004), with Tom Hanks. She had just completed work on IN THE CUT (2003), playing Meg Ryan’s slutty sister, when she flew to Spain to be in THE MACHINIST.


Anderson hired John Sharian (aka Shahnazarian) to play Ivan, giving him oversized teeth and a prosthetic left hand with toes for fingers. Sharian was quite good as the mystery man Ivan, staying strong in the memory, being a bit reminiscent of Brando in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) –with a lethal smile and deadly sardonic eyes, shady, earthy, muscular and thick-shouldered, flashy in his leather jacket and black sunglasses, and very dangerous; yet with an odd wicked sense of humor, with a definite twinkle in one eye and a drop of blood in the other. Sharian has appeared in 28 films since 1992. He was one of the squad in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), and he had some fine lighter moments in CALENDAR GIRLS (2003), with Helen Mirren.


Finally Brad Anderson also brought over the venerable Michael Ironside to play the hapless accident victim, Miller. He played Miller soaked in strangeness, hulking and sneering at first, and then softened and stunned by the shock of losing his arm, almost braggadocio about his cash settlement and his 400 horse power new vehicle, a working man who could no longer work, his life torn to shreds, yet still he did not seem to harbor hatred for Reznik who seemed to “cause” the accident –go figure.


Ironside is one of America ’s busiest actors, often very intense on the screen and usually delegated to playing heavies and baddies, he has appeared in 170 films since 1977. He is quickly closing in on film numbers that rival some of the great character actors, like John Carradine, who had the studio system to keep them employed. Ironside came to prominence in David Cronenberg’s SCANNERS (1981). I remember him as one of the constabulary in THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN (1985), with Sean Penn. He played the no-nonsense Jester in TOP GUN (1986), keeping young maverick Tom Cruise in line. He was Richter in TOTAL RECALL (1990), going toe to toe with Governor Schwartzenegger. He was in FREE WILLY (1993), with a very subdued Michael Madsen, and he was a flashy officer in the great bug epic, STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997), where he also lost an arm –and he was one of Clooney’s scruffy cronies in THE PERFECT STORM (2000).


Ironside once said, “If you ever play a guy who smacks an old lady with a shovel, killing her, and someone makes money on it –you will be handed that damned shovel over and over again. So look out old ladies, because it’s a living.”


Anderson was happy to cast the very lovely Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, a well known Spanish actress who was born in Italy, to play the kindly waitress, Marie –who just happened to work in Trevor’s favorite all-night café, be a single Mom, and had a soft spot for Reznik –who when he talked with her over his coffee allowed himself to be both charming and semi-attractive, giving us a glimpse of the earlier version of himself perhaps. But when Trevor began to realize that Marie reminded him of his own mother, and her son, Nicolas, reminded him a bit of his younger self, things definitely started getting weird. Sanchez-Gijon has appeared in 48 films since 1986, most of them Spanish. She was quite good, tasty and memorable as the fiery heroine flaunting convention in A WALK IN THE CLOUDS (1995), playing Anthony Quinn’s granddaughter, and managing to actually get a rise out of the otherwise wooden Keanu Reeves. And I do remember her in the seldom seen CHAMBERMAID ON THE TITANIC (1997).


Brad Anderson’s THE MACHINIST (2004) transcended genres. It transcended time and space, and even place –filmed in a kind of Andalusian limbo it thrusts us into an allegorical nightmare world that bends and twists like a wounded dragon’s tail –spiked and murderous –peopled with dark characters and dark deeds, drenched in shadows, shattered with whispers, suggesting demons lurking unseen in the darkness, only getting the odd flash of their red eyes as they pass, profane and gruesome, permeated with a dense sensation of the deepest despair, and terrible ragged anger toward the unknown, and the unknowable. It absolutely requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate and begin to understand the acting, the art design, the psychology, and the writing –that was rife with symbolism tearing at the protagonist from the inside, a raging beast held at bay behind several psychically-locked cortical doors. The appreciative audience member will be one who is at the top of their cognitive game in order to successfully negotiate the twisted journey within the mind of a truly tortured soul.


Glenn Buttkus 2007




2 thoughts on “Hangman, Hangman: Thoughts about THE MACHINIST

  1. Glenn,
    Very insightful commentary! Reading it makes me want to see the film one more time because you point out several aspects that I missed.

    I fully agree with your assessment that it is not really a “horror film”, but instead a part of the genre of “psychological thrillers” about deranged individuals.
    I would add one more film to your list of those based on a “similar genre” — The Swimmer (1968), discussed by the Film Club back in 2004 (http://tinyurl.com/336882). It has a psychological plotline that is similar to the Machinist in several respects: In both films, the main character has obviously experienced some traumatic event in the past, and this traumatic event has led to some form of extreme post traumatic stress disorder with symptoms that include loss of contact with reality and (hysterical) memory loss. Also, in both films, it is not until the final scenes that it is revealed (in a general sense, leaving many details unanswered, in The Swimmer, and in more more detail in The Machinist) what it was that happened to cause the psychological damage.

    Your mention of the film Memento as being of a similar genre inspires me to write a commentary on that film to post here. I have been wanting to do that for a while, but was holding off on the hope that we would pick that as an official discussion film, and then I could write a commentary after we had all watched it and discussed it. But alas, soooo many good films and so little time, hard to know if that film will ever make it to the top of our list, so I will go ahead and try to compose a commentary about that film to post here within the next few days.

  2. Ron:

    Gosh, I hope that my shooting out of the gate early with my thoughts on THE MACHINIST hasn’t shaken up the routine for comments. Let’s hope that if there is a comment to be made, that person will figure out to put in right here, under my posting.

    Yeah, you got me pumped up to see MEMENTO again. I have only seen it twice, and your comments at the TFC meeting were that no one can really “understand it” without seeing it “five times”. So I need to get busy. Also, I agree with you it is a film whose time has come, and I will begin to politic for it at the Producer’s Committee meeting. I am only one of three, but often I yell the loudest, or bitch the most until I get my way, or one of my picks.

    Damn, I was glancing back on the blog at your posting for BABEL. You certainly stirred up a shitstorm there, sir. At last count there were (14) responses and comments, several of which were strangers; not even Club members. Your responses to some of them are worth the price of admission too.

    As this friend of mine continues to say,”So many movies, and so little time.” Club members want to see more comedies. I want to see more Westerns and Sci-Fi. David wants to see more classical and foreign films. Chiko wants to see more esoteric films, and not just pick “popular classics” –which of course checkmates Bergman, more Fellini, de Sica, Truffaut, John Ford, Howard Hawks, and a ton of others.

    In almost four years now the Club has viewed and discussed 36 films a year, times 4 years and we come up with over 138 movies already; but hey, there are at least 5,000 excellent films to chose from pulling from the 25,000 that are on VHS and DVD. Just the 12,500 movies I own, that are in my personal collection –if the average length is 1.5 hours, and I watched movies for 10 hours a day, seeing 6-7 movies, times 7 days a week; that would be 48 films a week, times 52 weeks, that would be about 2500 per year, taking me over 5 years to just review my collection; and that does not take into account the 7,000 hours of TV series episodes I have collected; the complete STAR TREK, over 700 hours, 150 episodes of BONANZA, 5 years of BABYLON FIVE, a complete 7 seasons of X-FILES, 7 seasons of C.S.I. , 5 seasons of C.S.I: MIAMI, 130 episodes of M.A.S.H. , almost all 4 seasons of HILL STREET BLUES, HOMICIDE, MIAMI VICE, the first season of THE SIMPSONS, almost every version of SHERLOCK HOLMES, the 14 Basil Rathbones, all the Hammer TV versions, the BBC Jeremy Britt series, a bunch of THE OUTER LIMITS, almost 50 episodes of the original TWILIGHT ZONE, 3 seasons of HOUSE, M.D., and then I have 500 hours of Biography from A&E, and all the Actor’s Studio specials, the last 15 years of the Academy Awards, most of the original HONEYMOONERS, 20 hours of I LOVE LUCY, all 34 TARZAN movies, and the 3 TV series they spawned, all 40 movies of BLONDIE, all the ROAD pics with Bing and Bob….Jesus, I wear myself out just thinking about it. One day soon I will retire, and start reorganizing things. You have not paid the Buttkus Museum of Cinema a visit yet. David has, and Dick M. made a short foray into it.


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