Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Machinist (spoilery)

I finally saw The Machinist. The first thing that pops into my head is perhaps unfair: Christian Bale lost all that weight for this?

More than anything, The Machinist is a treatise on the limits of mood. I've never been one to complain about "all sizzle, no steak", or whatever-- I just think that's a reductive way of thinking, which ignores that there's no real boundary between style and substance. But I think that The Machinist is a movie that proves that atmospherics by themselves can't do the heavy lifting. The colors are muted; the score is minimal and creepy; everything is ugly and eerie and oily and mechanical; the movie is pointless. Yes, Bale lost a lot of weight. But I don't really know how that makes sense in the plot. The setup is that he hasn't slept in a year, but that's not going to cause one to become so skinny. Yeah, I know-- he's just generally degrading in every sense. However, the movie sets up his insomnia as the hook, and then proceeds to ignore it. Ignores it, that is, until the final shot of the movie, which again establishes the preeminence of the insomnia trope-- and again demonstrates the distraction of the weight-loss.

It's tempting to say that Bale's transformation is the product of ego, and it's true that I'm not a big fan of the physical transformation school of acting. (The string of Best Actress winners who won by being beautiful women playing ugly depressed me, to the degree that I can get depressed by the Oscars.) But I'm not willing to judge Bale too harshly, as I do believe that he genuinely felt that he was trying as hard as he could to make the most of the movie.

What I find unforgivable is the fundamental incoherence of the twist, which somehow feels at once obligatory and inappropriate. I actually dug Fight Club's twist, and I admired the way in which the movie didn't worry itself about the physical realities of what the twist meant. But this movie's twist, another "this guy is really just in the protagonist head"-- and I'm really ready to toss that one on the fire-- doesn't follow any rules, doesn't bother any internal consistency, doesn't bother to explain what's real and what's not. Of course, you could do that, if you did it well. But the movie can't pull it off, and I felt annoyed that there was nothing we could know while watching was real-- sometimes, what we see the main character doing really happened, sometimes it doesn't, and the movie seems assured that acting this way is just another aspect of mood. (This is in general a movie that seems to pronounce mood moooooooooood, you know what I mean?)

I really wish there was a word for the sensation where you have come to the inevitable twist and, even if you didn't expect a twist, still feel a sense of powerful mundaneness and rehearsal. I'm pretty sure it's precisely the opposite of the way I used to feel when a movie really surprised me.

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