It’s unfortunate that video stores no longer exist, because The Infernal Machine would thrive as one of those rentals that a store carries only one or two copies of. The movie that moms would get on a rainy weekend—or watch, with growing fascination, in between sets as it silently plays on the TV in a hotel gym tuned to TNT. That’s not to say it’s an especially bad movie. It’s … “okay,” a passable piece of direct-to-streaming fare that might take up residence at the bottom of your queue or watchlist.
Competently written and directed with bursts of visual flare by Andrew Hunt, and adapted from the scripted Hilly Earth Society podcast, The Infernal Machine feels like the movie you’d get if mid-’90s Rob Reiner had a threeway with Taylor Sheridan and Misery. Guy Pearce plays reclusive, controversial author Bruce Cogburn, who is responsible for a novel that upends his secluded, oily hair and jean jacketed existence when his P.O. box fills with unsettling letters and care packages from an obsessed fan who goes by the name of Mr. William Dukent.
Cogburn voices his frustrations directly to Mr. Dukent, or rather, to Dukent’s answering machine, where he proceeds to leave repeated messages in the form of cranky soliloquies. Before long (but not soon enough, given the film’s sluggish two-hour runtime), their escalating cat-and-mouse game forces Cogburn out of hiding and into a confrontation with his past, creating a .puzzle for the viewer to solve. But those puzzle pieces are as jagged as the trauma surrounding the events that connect the author to his infamous novel, which once inspired a man to take a rifle onto a high perch and unload it into the civilians below. The closer Cogburn gets to confronting both his past and the work it inspired, the more he wishes he stayed home pulling a J.D. Salinger.
In fact, The Infernal Machine seems to be the two-and-a-half-star answer to an elevator pitch that asks: “What if Salinger wrote a book that inspired a mass shooting during the Regan Administration?” Unfortunately, any nuance or surprise that premise may inspire is painfully absent. The film seems to be doing the equivalent of (ironically) “phoning it in,” delivering an underwhelming but ultimately fitting resolution to Cogburn’s plight.
The cast, however, is strong and engaging. Pearce, playing against type, invests himself fully into Cogburn, a former educator and author-turned-red state burnout, one who wears his sun-kissed eccentricities and self-imposed isolation as badges of honor. Who prides himself on threatening to shoot those who seek him out, threats that the writer voices repeatedly via the aforementioned answering machine messages.
Like the podcast before it, The Infernal Machine milks significant mileage out of a drama built upon the confessions that accompany Cogburn’s answering machine messages. With each new phone call, both Pearce and Hunt find ways to use performance and camerawork, respectively, to peel back the curtain on why Cogburn has calcified into this cliched hermit, a man who spends his days demanding his privacy after writing a book that pushed him into the spotlight.
As the emotional walls of his off-the-grid life splinter around him, and the audience learns more about this shooting and the effects its aftershocks had on Cogburn’s mental state, The Infernal Machine gets closer to realizing its full potential before settling into a predictable drive towards a climax that feels less revelatory and shocking than the movie thinks it is. But along the way, Pearce gives one of his most vulnerable performances, especially in a scene where Cogburn softens his harsh edges long enough to invite the fan whose life he threatened to join him for a drink at the local dive bar. When Cogburn is stood up, yet continues to call the answering machine, Pearce’s performance kicks into another gear that the rest of the movie lags behind. Cogburn’s “stay away” vibes are eventually (obviously) revealed to be a coping mechanism. They serve as body armor, one that these care packages and long phone calls chip away at like projectiles. Pearce finds increasingly interesting and compelling ways to make this arc—and the movie’s more predictable scenes and twists—worth watching.
The movie’s watchability factor is also bolstered by a compelling supporting cast, with Alice Eve as the standout. She invests her understated character with more depth and personality than the script seemingly provides, especially when Cogburn’s past gradually pulls her inescapably into his decaying orbit. Alex Pettyfer (Magic Mike), as Dwight, whose identity shouldn’t be spoiled here, does his best with a character who needs more than this actor’s “just okay” acting chops to truly resonate.
Thankfully, Hunt and his very game cast work together to settle on something more watchable, but ultimately not memorable or necessary. It is a movie seemingly content to idle at the delicate intersection of “destined for obscurity” and “potential ideal background watch.” All of which is unfortunate, because there is a good movie to be made out of this story. One that deserves more than being the movie that your retired parents call you after watching to give you their review.