‘The Machinist’, Explained

American writer William Faulkner once famously said, “People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.” Perhaps these words are not just words meant for paper but for life itself. How many people commit sin and seek to attain salvation? How many seek to live a life without guilt while committing sins on the way?  These questions, while quite difficult to answer, are perhaps best answered by the troubled Trevor Reznik in the psychological thriller ‘The Machinist’.

Directed by American writer-filmmaker Brad Anderson, ‘The Machinist’ follows the life of Trevor Reznik, a machinist who suffers from insomnia and psychological problems. This constant mental unease causes him to have continuous fights and arguments with his co-workers. His deteriorating mental health leads to him being fired from his workplace after a serious accident involving a co-worker. With him being ostracised from the society, the film chronicles his downward spiral of paranoia and delusion.

Led by British actor Christen Bale, the film is noted for its deep psychological undertones and ideas of salvation and guilt. A part of the spectrum of Bale’s initially filmography which labelled him as a method actor, the film is perfectly moulded by his chilling performance. Written by American screenwriter Scott Kosar, the film is intrinsically built around the character development which formulates the succeeding narrative discourse. Aiding him is the gloomy cinematography by Xavi Giménez which showcases Trevor’s mental discomfort, pain and trauma.

The film’s narrative is intertwined by a variety of themes, motifs and symbols which structure the psychological thriller. From aspects such as self-knowledge, society’s behavioural tendencies, guilt and conscience, ‘The Machinist’ is a tale of unattainable salvation. In this article, I attempt to understand how the narrative of ‘The Machinist’ plays out toward the shocking climax. This article deconstructs the plot and further discusses the themes, motifs, symbols and characters which form the essence of the flick.

The Plot

‘The Machinist’ stars Christian Bale as the titular machinist, Trevor Reznik who suffers from insomnia, thus being immensely emancipated. His deteriorating health and appearance keep his co-workers away. Things turn worse with them turning against him when he is involved in an accident which causes his co-worker, Miller, to lose his left arm, due to him being was distracted by an unfamiliar co-worker named Ivan. He is ostracized when it turns out that none of the workers know Ivan, causing them to suspect Trevor of being insensitive and crazy. However, Trevor has one silver lining in Stevie, a prostitute with genuine affection for him, and with Maria, a waitress at an airport diner he frequents.

Trevor is also haunted by brief flashes of recurring imagery and nightmares. Adding to the murkiness, a mysterious series of post-it notes appear on his refrigerator, depicting a game of hangman. Continually troubled by the vague incidents send him further into paranoia, he tries to establish a relationship with Maria. In a series of such events, he meets her and her son, Nicholas at an amusement park. Interested in a house ride called “Route 666”, Trevor accompanies Nicholas but things go bad as flashing lights causes the kid to suffer an epileptic seizure. These continuous bizarre occurrences drive Trevor paranoid and he starts suspecting that the bizarre events are a concerted effort by someone to drive him insane. In an attempt to understand these freak events, Trevor locates several small clues. One picture of Ivan fishing with Trevor’s co-worker Reynolds, which he discovers in Ivan’s wallet when Ivan leaves it unattended in a pub, leads him to further speculation. However, Trevor’s continuous paranoia causes him to lash out on people and completely alienate himself from everyone. Trevor forgets to pay his utility bills and his electricity is disconnected.

Amidst this isolation, Trevor one day notices a dark, viscous liquid begins trickling out of the freezer, coating the refrigerator door with streaks of what appears to be blood. Again suspecting Ivan’s hand in it, Trevor, in order to confront him, tries to trace his license plate. He follows Ivan’s car to read its license plate but runs out of gas during the pursuit. He tries to acquire the number from a DMV clerk but is told that personal information cannot be released unless a crime has been committed. Hearing this, Trevor throws himself in front of a car in order to accuse Ivan of committing a hit and run. However, while filing a police report with Ivan’s car’s plate number on it, Trevor gets to know that the car is his own, which he had reported the vehicle totalled one year ago. With no other option, Trevor flees from the police station to live with Stevie. While things seem merry, he finds the photo of Ivan and Reynolds framed in her home and accuses her of conspiring against him. Confused, Stevie says the picture is of Reynolds and Trevor, but he refuses to look at it and is thrown out after a verbal conflict.

To find seek some compassion, Trevor goes to meet Maria at the airport diner, but to his shock, is told by an unfamiliar waitress they’ve never had an employee named Maria. The waitress at the counter tells Trevor she has served him every day for a year, and in all that time he spoke so little that she began to think he was a mute.

Later that day, Trevor notices Ivan take Nicholas into Trevor’s apartment. Fearing Nicholas’ safety, he confronts Ivan, only to kill him after having a scuffle. In an attempt to hide the body, Trevor attempts to foil Ivan into a carpet but suddenly has flashbacks of a photo which show Trevor with Reynolds, which he saw in Stevie’s apartment. Then as he tries to dispose of Ivan’s corpse by rolling it in a rug and casting it into the ocean, he finds that there is nobody in the rug. Suddenly a torch flashes at him from behinds, and it is revealed that Ivan is, to Trevor’s utmost confusion, alive.

Trevor realizes that he had been hallucinating out of guilt, thus staring at a mirror, mouthing the words, “I know who you are.”  It is revealed that a year ago, Trevor ran over and killed a boy identical to Nicholas after taking his eyes off the road to use the car’s cigarette lighter, which was witnessed by the boy’s mother, identical to Maria. Fearing prosecuting, he decided to drive away. However, this act, of cowardice and unjust results him being guilt-ridden, therefore causing insomnia, emaciation and repressed memory. It is then revealed that Ivan is a figment of Trevor’s imagination and a manifestation of himself before the accident. Trevor walks towards the aforementioned hang-man game, filling the missing letters, which spell “killer.” In an attempt to escape, he reconsiders his decision and drives to police headquarters. He sees Ivan, encouraging his decision, and at the police station’s front desk, he confesses to the hit and run case. Two police officers escort Trevor to a cell, where he states his wishes to sleep and does so for the first time in a year.

Insomnia

Insomnia is the first symbol which helps viewers understand Trevor’s state of mind. The main narrative stars with Trevor contemplating his disparity of not being able to sleep and the narrative concludes with him finally being able to get a good sleep. Sleep deprivation is employed to ride the theme of salvation. One might contest the fact that the hallucinations were a part of a nightmare, proving the fact that he does not suffer from insomnia but from horrible nightmares. Such a theory has some plausibility to it as he might be hallucinating while dozing off in the day, as a result of his inability to sleep in the night.  When Trevor learns that Ivan, Maria and Nicholas were just parts of his guilt-ridden hallucination, it showcases the instability of his mind. The film does not contest upon the theme insomnia. It is just a means of sketching out his succeeding character traits. The film employs insomnia as a metaphor for his sleep being deprived due to guilt and culpability.

Guilt

The narrative device which sparks off Trevor’s character arc is the theme of “guilt”. Through the progression of the film, we notice a chilling air looming through the narrative. Trevor is shown to be immensely emancipated. In one scene, while talking to his girlfriend Stevie, Trevor jokingly protrudes his ribs, showcasing a harrowing image of his body. His health deteriorates as he suffers from insomnia and sees terrible nightmares.

‘The Machinist’ touches upon a variety of theories of “abnormal psychology”.  The film explores the guilt which plays a crucial role in the development of mental discomfort, and in Trevor’s case, insomnia to delusional paranoia. The increased focus on Trevor’s hallucination also points towards the aspect of “guilt-induced schizophrenia”. Trevor’s erratic behaviour has influences from certain types of bipolar disorder and auditory hallucinations disorder. The narrative also deals in Trevor’s intrinsic shift in behaviour aided by underlying neurosis, which connects Trevor’s behaviour and his guilt. Trevor showcases symptoms of having OCD and as we see his compulsive cleaning behaviours. If looked carefully, he is obsessed with washing his hands. The film connects his OCD with guilt as the washing of hand symbolises Trevor washing the blood off his hands.

The Ending and the Characters

Ivan: Ivan is crated as a means to represent Trevor’s guilt. With his conscience disturbed, Ivan acts as a manifestation of himself and his past. Ivan is not only the manifestation of his guilt, but is also a manifestation of his own self. In the climactic scenes, as Trevor tries to force a confession out of Ivan, learns that Ivan’s car is actually his own. He used to drive the same car which Trevor seemingly had destroyed after the accident. We also see that Ivan has a strange appearance, particularly his severed thumb, which is replaced by a toe. The appearance symbolizes the sin Trevor had committed. Ivan’s presence is a constant reminder of the insensitive act Trevor had gotten away with. In the end, as Trevor turns himself in, Ivan smiles, approving with acknowledgement. Ivan’s role had achieved his true purpose.

Marie and Nikolas: While Marie and Nicholas seem to be the only people with noble and good intentions, we learn that also is a figment of Trevor’s imagination. Created by him in an attempt to lessen his deep ridden of guilt, the slow progression of insanity is sparked off from. As it turns out, Nikolas was the child who Trevor accidentally killed and Marie was his mother. In a deep sense of living in a world without consequences, the bind that Marie and Nicholas share with him is his way of lightening the burden of guilt. It also throws light on the fact that the consider him to be a “good man”, a compliment which he tried to prove himself his clean and just conscience.

Time also foreshadows their role in his hallucinatory experiences. Trevor and the mother-son duo decide to meet at the amusement park at 1:30, the exact time of the accident. It also revealed that Trevor and his mother used to visit the same amusement park. The bond Maria and Nicholas signify the relationship shared by a child and his mother – a factor which haunts him even more.

Motifs

Route 66: The importance of Nicolas’ death is first showcased when he has an epileptic attack while he and Trevor ride in the “Highway to Hell” ride. The short trip presents Trevor’s tormented state of mind. When Nicholas has the attack, Trevor dutifully takes him to the hospital, which he should have done in the accident. Nicholas’ epileptic attack is just a part of hallucination and a means to justify the fact that Trevor is a man of noble deeds and thoughts.

The Refrigerator and the Notes: The refrigerator and the notes stuck to it also have an immense importance in sketching out Trevor’s emotionally distraught state. There are single shots of the refrigerator and in one scene, blood pours out, raising the levels of curiosity. The notes, which are actually a game of hangman is filled up by someone and it is not clear as to who completes the game. However, as revealed later, the game was actually completed by Trevor himself. Perhaps it is his guilt which pens out the six-lettered word – “Killer”.

Final Word

‘The Machinist’ is a deep and dark look into a person’s psyche. It explores the themes which tautness and edginess. With a cohesive screenplay and a well-executed direction, Bale’s character showcases how guilt can turn a person insane which can result in far more deadlier consequences.

Read More in Explainers: Inception | Shutter Island

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