One look at Christian Bale in The Machinist and you'll never want to listen to another syllable about Renée Zellweger's body-reshaping rituals. Potential bachelor-auction material in films like Laurel Canyon and the forthcoming Batman Begins, Bale seems to have starved himself to the point of near-collapse to play Trevor Reznik, a wincingly emaciated machine-shop operator nearing the end of a year of mysterious torment. Whitened flesh clings to Bale/Reznik's protruding skull bones; when he strips down to have sex with a comparatively zaftig prostitute (Jennifer Jason Leigh), we see that his limbs have atrophied to a puniness that's pure concentration camp. If self-abuse be the food of cinematic immortality, then walk away, Renée there's a new king chameleon of sickliness in town.
The trouble with the movie is that its dramatic content is almost as thin as Reznik's extremities, and nearly as obvious as the ribs that poke through his skin. Our only real objective as an audience is figuring out how and why this sunken-eyed loner has allowed his physiognomy to degenerate to such a skeletal extreme. His perturbed co-workers assume his decline has something to do with drug intake, but he swears it's not the case, and the movie gives us little reason not to believe him. An explanation may instead lurk in Reznik's admission that he hasn't slept in a year. (Aha! From the looks of him, we knew he had to have something in common with Keith Richards.)
Chronic insomnia, as sufferers know, can bring on some mighty powerful hallucinations, so fatigue-related dementia is our instinctive diagnosis when Reznik starts experiencing a run of hard-luck incidents most of them heralded by the sudden appearance of a grinning, bald tormentor (John Sharian) who's his opposite in almost every way. Yet so advanced is the weakened Reznik's paranoia that he can't even be sure it's this same fellow who keeps breaking into his apartment to torture him with cryptic Post-it notes. Why, it could be anybody doing that. Right?
Director Brad Anderson (Next Stop Wonderland) keeps the tension boiling at a decent temperature, but the best that writer Scott Kosar (responsible for the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Amityville Horror) can manage is a threadbare version of the creeps we're used to getting from David Lynch and David Cronenberg. The script suggests early on that the malevolent Ivan may be a figment of Reznik's imagination can't hold that card back for too long from an audience that's already seen Fight Club but once it's out there, Kosar fails to provide any decent counter-theories or red herrings to keep us on our toes. Instead, the movie slithers down a path that's frustratingly linear and predictable, determined to resolve itself into a tidy statement about crime and punishment. To quote the old saw about skinny folk, The Machinist seems afraid that if it turns sideways, it just might disappear.