The Machinist: A Review from a psychological point of view

by Helen

This was written as part of my AS course in Psychology, then declared irrelevant to what we were doing (frustratingly, as I’d been told reviewing this particular film would’ve been okay, but hey, you can’t have everything), so, considering as it’s not going to be marked, I thought I’d put it here. 

Out of the vast plethora of films dealing with issues of mental health, few remain as perpetually fascinating, effective and provocative as The Machinist (2004). Trevor Reznik, our protagonist played spectacularly by Christian Bale, is an industrial worker. He’s also on the verge of breakdown. Having not slept in year and his weight plummeting as fast as his paranoia skyrockets, the film documents his increasingly tenuous grasp on reality.

After a colleague is injured in a particularly gruesome accident, Trevor begins to suspect his co-workers of secretly resenting him, and worse, trying to drive him mad through cryptic messages left on post-its throughout his flat. As Trevor’s delusional, paranoid state gets more severe, the film slowly unfolds to reveal the source of his insomnia, fear and other issues to brilliant affect.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of The Machinist is the sheer number of different areas of abnormal psychology it brushes upon. Whilst maybe not strictly a “mental health” film in the term’s purest form, it’s inarguable many such psychological issues provide the basis of the film’s foundations. It explores the part guilt plays in the development of mental unease, from insomnia to delusional paranoia, whilst simultaneously hinting at the occurrence many another well-known mental illnesses in our main character. From the relatively obvious explorations of psychosis and auditory and visual hallucinations (many have argued that The Machinist is almost certainly a film documenting a character who has fallen prey to guilt-induced schizophrenia, or multiple (or another type of) personality (or mood- for example, in severe cases of the mania that comes with certain types of bi-polar disorder, the sufferer may experience either visual and/or auditory hallucinations) disorder. Certainly, as we can only truly describe the enigmatic Ivan, by the end of the film at least, as a physical, hallucinated manifestation of Trevor’s conscience or guilt, it’s understandable why such conclusions might be drawn. The link between Ivan and his insomnia is more than obvious- there were moments in the film were he was jolted from his fleeting sleep by Ivan’s presence.

However, there are many other, more subtly suggested problems being dealt with by Trevor Rezink. Long has the link between guilt (most likely our primary starting point for the Trevor’s deterioration in this film) and various types of anxiety disorders been discussed, and moreover, throughout the film Trevor does seem to exhibit behaviour that might indicate some underlying neurosis. One point in the story sees him scrubbing the bathroom floor with bleach and a toothbrush, an ignorable link in the viewers mind with such compulsive cleaning behaviours exhibited by some sufferers of OCD. Equally, his obsessive hand-washing harks to the same illness, as certainly one symptom of the disorder many seem to relish talking of is obsessive-compulsive hand-washing- we’ve all heard the stories of the poor person doomed by their disorder to compulsively and uncontrollably wash their hands, dry them, inspect them, return to the sink, lather up, continue washing… until the skin peels off their palms. Such behaviours, caustic and self-destructive in themselves, have an inextricable link with guilt, both in this context and in the context many sufferers have to live within- the idea of there being “blood on the hands” taken to it’s most literal extreme. Indeed, Trevor himself concedes that “a little guilt can go a long way.”

Inevitably, parallels can be drawn with other explorations of the same disorder in literature, filmic and otherwise. Most notably would be Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, who likewise, is compelled down to a crippling guilt complex, to compulsively wash her hands, much like Trevor Reznik in our example.

The Machinist- whilst arguably more implicitly than it deals with other issues, say, for example, psychosis- also hints at other “anxiety disorders” beyond OCD. Trevor Reznik’s dramatic weight-loss, drawing comments from those around him, sits heavily entwined in the viewers mind, with psychiatric disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa, atypical or otherwise. Whilst perhaps the film doesn’t deal directly with the cause of Trevor’s weight-loss (after all, the viewer is on, the simplest level, left to assume either his insomnia meant he was losing weight at such a rate; he’d lost his appetite through guilt or there was something more consuming afoot. After all, we do only see Trevor eat once throughout the film- with a fervour one could assume comes after prolonged hunger, and he asks if Marie, his waitress is “trying to fatten” him up. Equally, the obsessive tracking of his weight-loss could lead some psychologists to draw conclusions of some sort of weight or food related disorder. It might also be of interest to note that throughout the course of filming, Christian Bale himself, forced to subsist of a diet of, allegedly “an apple and black coffee” each day in order to reach the weight required, started exhibiting clinical symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa, which corresponds with the findings from experiments researching the condition- if subjects were limited to a low calorie intake, they exhibited many symptoms of certain eating disorders- obsessing about food, hoarding behaviours, stealing food, and- probably most interestingly, heightened concern about weight and body-image.

Despite all this, we would do well to bear in mind that The Machinist is a work of art, and ultimately, fiction, and shouldn’t be taken as true depiction of whatever mental disorders the protagonist may or may not be dealing with. However, this isn’t to say that the film itself would be uninteresting or even useless to psychologists. On the contrary, not only does the film provide an interesting exploration of intense guilt and the consequences it might have, it also provides insight into how mental disorders and depicted in the media, and the stigma that could be attached to them. Certainly, in far too mediums tackling such topics, mental illnesses are depicted as almost glamorous, even desirable. The hype that surrounded Chuck Palahniuk’s cult novel Fight Club led a generation to long for their own Tyler Durden- your cooler, slicker counterpart, and the depiction of the treatment of mental health in the film of Girl, Interrupted made intolerable mental anguish seem like an exclusive clique of attractive young women. The Machinist on the other hand, whilst having the predictably anguished protagonist, arguably deals with such issues in a more sensitive, and possibly realistic light. It’s a difficult, disturbing film, but an undeniably affecting, thought-provoking one, one that provides insight -albeit with an artistic, provocative edge- into guilt, mental disturbance and the multitude of other terrible psychological problems that may arise in certain circumstances.

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