Christian Bale does his best impersonation of a skeleton in The Machinist, a muddled neo-noir for which Bale pulled a reverse Robert De Niro, losing 60 pounds to play a man so skinny that a stiff wind would send him into the next zip code. Suffering through the actor's tortured performance, viewers might not know whether to empathize with him or try to reach through the screen in an effort to force-feed him a sandwich. But his extreme makeover is little more than a distraction in what devolves into yet another funereal knockoff of Fight Club.
Filming with the dirty, desaturated stylishness of a Nine Inch Nails video, Next Stop Wonderland and Session 9 director Brad Anderson casts Bale as a miserable machinist whose class consciousness manifests both in his combative encounters with management and in his generous tips to waitresses and prostitutes. Bale's grasp on sanity seems shaky from the get-go, but as The Machinist progresses, he goes steadily from half-crazy to frothing, barking mad. The only source of pleasure in his existence comes from his affectionate relationships with a prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), but once Bale becomes obsessed with a sinister, jovial coworker who may exist only in his mind, his chances of salvation and a good night's sleep grow slim.
Like far too many contemporary neo-noirs, The Machinist feels hermetic, overly deterministic, and secondhand, less an honest reaction to the cruel absurdity of existence than a shallow attempt to ape the claustrophobic, fashionable despair of post-war noirs. Scott Kosar's script and Anderson's direction fetishize despair in ways that border on comic. The copy of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot sitting in Bale's apartment qualifies as light reading for the film; if Bale were ever to take Sánchez-Gijón up on her offer of a movie date, they'd no doubt take in a double feature of The Sorrow And The Pity and Shoah.
The Machinist is unrelentingly dreary, and seemingly destined to be remembered, if at all, as that movie Christian Bale lost a full third of his body weight for. It doesn't deserve any better. Suffering for art can be noble. Making the audience suffer for stumbling, morose attempts at art, as The Machinist does, is just plain cruel.