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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Conscience Does Murder Sleep
by Donald Levit

Apples and oranges, yes, stage vs. screen, but realize that the informing concept here is at least as old as Macbeth and the slightly earlier victim-haunted heavies of Revenge, or Blood, Tragedy. There are Hitchcock’s Psycho, of course, in its own class, and Polanski’s Repulsion, and many more recent variations on the theme, the under-esteemed Angel Heart, Eriq LaSalle’s Crazy as Hell, and Cronenberg’s atmosphere-y but less effective Spider among them. The latest entry would be The Machinist, Brad Anderson’s mechanical realization from a script by Scott Kosar.

In blue tints to simulate machine-room spark-lighting and render pale flesh even more pallid, this thriller only hints that it is flashback in the hero’s mind, and right until the end, if then, the viewer can never be quite sure where an external reality lets off and subjective vision begins. White socks protrude from a rug that a desperate, bloody-faced man rolls down a cement breakwater into the sea -- a trickle of blood and black eye, by the way, shift from one side of his face to the other -- but he is surprised by a watchman’s flashlight and question, “Who are you?” The man flees in a pickup, and back in his eerie apartment the story begins to unfold.

He is Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale), a drill-press operator who insists on workers’ rights but has lately withdrawn from locker-room banter and the guys’ poker games. He is clean, boyish and charming with Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), the airport counter waitress for whom he leaves twenty dollars after nightly coffee and pie, and he has been manly with Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a hooker who will go “off the meter” for this preferred client.

Abandoned by his father at six or seven, still grieving for the adored dead mother who raised him, he has been strange for a year. For one thing, sticking Post-it’s all over, particularly on the refrigerator, he has been unable to sleep and grown dangerously emaciated to a hundred nineteen pounds on a twenty-six-inch waist. In a black-and-white room deriving from Norman Bates’s end, sporting an ironic Justice Brothers car repair tee shirt, his final words will be, “I just want to sleep,” as actor and character balefully sleepwalk through the film. The sleek, hunky, un-goateed Bale we know does not appear until later, for brief unnecessary seconds, but one appreciates the sixty-three pounds unhealthily shed for his scarecrow character, whose concentration-camp collarbones and vertebrae are the scariest things in the movie.

Snoozing and smoking in the parking lot at work, he meets burly Ivan (John Sharian), head-shaved, horse-toothed and swaggering, who is to replace Reynolds (James DePaul). Concerned superiors at National Machines have already questioned Trevor about drugs and required a urine sample, but as he monitors a safety catch for Miller (Michael Ironside), his attention wanders to Ivan, the machine cranks up, and the fellow worker is mangled at the cost of an arm.

Inquiry reveals that Reynolds was not in jail but on the job and that no one named Ivan works in the factory. The others turn against him, and following a similar accident on the Swansea lathe that nearly tears off his arm, Trevor is sacked. Unaccountable notes are posted at home, one reading “Who are you?” while on the blood-oozing refrigerator are others representing the children’s “hangman” game. At the amusement park, Marie’s fatherless, epileptic son (Matthew Romero Moore) has a fit alongside Trevor in the Route 666 spooky house “Highway to Hell,” while, driving a significant red-and-black 1969 Pontiac Firebird, Ivan shows up repeatedly, mockingly displaying his surgically repaired machine-deformed hand.

Caught, and distraught, in a web that he takes as a plot, seeing the “hangman” solution in a Mother’s Day card or in Miller’s surname and worker’s compensation, he turns to the police, who will not help, then to Stevie, who exasperatedly throws him out with the same expletive she had applied to her ex-husband. To Roque Baños’ melodramatic score, a photo is stolen, lost, reappears, in which laughing Ivan’s companion changes; there are two hit-and-runs, the time 1:30 am crops up, a car lighter looms ominous, in fleeting half-seen vision.

Frantic but wily, Trevor thinks he knows. But we do, and the solution is hardly a shock. Despite a number of false clues thrown out, and although the exact cause may need to be clarified, the man’s isolating, unbalanced paranoia is at the heart of things. Not terribly gory for all that, nowhere near so frightening as it pretends. 

(Released by Paramount Classics; not rated by MPAA.)

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