DEUS EX MACHINA
The opening scenes function as an overture to the atmosphere of undefined menace which is prolonged until the final dénouement. We see through an outside window the blurred and emaciated figure of Trevor Reznik wrapping what seems to be a dead body in a rug. We see his bruised and cut face as he moves closer to the window and lights a cigarette. Reflected in the glass are three industrial chimneys and a string of lights foreshadowing the landscape of the next scene where he will dispose of the unidentified body. Reznik’s bewildered demeanour, the eerie Theremin music (strongly associated with the sci-fi and mystery genre), and fragmented glimpses of the penultimate scenes create an air of suspense and foreboding.
What marks the movie out from a formulaic murder-mystery is that we inhabit the distorted mindscape of Reznik as he attempts to understand the uncanny experiences unfolding around him. As viewers we are largely dependent on his interpretation of events and become a mirror of his perplexed state. This immersion within a subjective consciousness intensifies the identification of the viewer with the protagonist on the journey toward self-discovery and the cathartic effect of the resolution.
We can piece together something of his life and character through shorthand depictions of his daily routine: he has insomnia; he works as a machinist; he has a relationship with two women: a prostitute and a waitress; he is losing weight and he has obsessive -compulsive behaviours.
His relations with his work colleagues is summed up succinctly in this dialogue
What’s up with you? You used to be alright.
Well, he used to hang, but he ain’t never been alright.
The cinematography communicates the mindscape of Reznik through the use of a grey and blue palette, washed out colours and ghostly reflections, large empty spaces and blurred or distorted images.
With Reznik we are inside a consciousness ill at ease with reality, holding at bay the memory of a crime which is nevertheless seeping into his awareness in indirect ways. This is the cause of his year-long insomnia and the source of his waking hallucinations. There are visual references to the authors Dostoyevsky and Kafka which introduce the themes of conscience and guilt by invoking the most familiar works of these two writers, Crime and Punishment and The Trial, but the visual language and the script are strong enough to convey the themes without relying on the audience’s knowledge of these works.
Embedded in this imagined dialogue with the waitress are shards of the buried reality:
Why do you go out of your way to come here every night?
Is it out of the way?
An airport? For coffee and pie?
Suppose I went to Denny’s? Suddenly I get an overwhelming urge to skip town. Could I do that at just any diner?
Is someone chasing you?
Not yet, but they will when they find out who I am.
Oh really? Who are you?
Can you keep a secret?
To the grave.
I’m Elvis Presley. I ran away from home to pursue my blue collar aspirations.
I thought you looked familiar!
Throughout the movie Reznik is struggling to apprehend the elusive meaning of his experiences. Images and connections, moments of déjà-vu and waking hallucinations, which he can’t quite grasp, disorientate him, and his attempts to focus on them reveal only his own paranoia and alienation. Displacing his guilt onto the people around him he becomes convinced that he is the victim of a conspiracy. This projection of his own shadow onto reality is a psychological manoeuvre to defer the pain of self-awareness. Paranoia weaves an imaginary construction out of real events which serves to exonerate the paranoid of responsibility for their predicament. We see this manoeuvre early on where the dialogue with Stevie, the prostitute, is repeated in the imaginary dialogue with Maria, the waitress.
Are you okay?
Don’t I look okay?
If you were any thinner you wouldn’t exist
Fantasy is here feeding on the substance of reality and building its alternative structure to house the guilty conscience. This ‘building’ activity is represented in the movie by the Hangman game played out by Reznik’s unconscious on the post-it notes he leaves to remind himself of domestic chores such as paying utility bills. By the detours of TUCKER, MILLER, and MOTHER he will eventually form the word KILLER and build the scaffold for his own guilt.
We can see that Reznik’s mental and physical integrity is endangered by the denial of his actions but that also somewhere within him there is the contrary impulse operating; a movement to acknowledge the action and to restore the balance. This impulse dissimulates itself as a quest for the mysterious figure of Ivan, who seems to be the mastermind of the plot against him and a potential murderer.
In reality Ivan is the debased and distorted projection of Reznik’s inner state. Brandishing his grotesque hand in the face of Reznik he is bringing to his awareness not just the fact of Miller’s accident (caused by Reznik’s distracted state) but also the badly constructed nature of Reznik’s paranoid machinations.
They took the big toe from the left foot and the pinkie from my right that’s why I walk with a gimp. Yeah, I can’t shuffle cards like I used to but the ladies sure like it!
The role of Ivan, ultimately leading Reznik to a redemptive act, resembles the manner in which the grotesque and the comical were employed in medieval mystery plays for didactic purposes:
For the Middle Ages…the grotesque functioned as a book to the unlettered, inculcating the basic Christian position on the nature of sin. The distortion, inherent in the grotesque, taught that sin vitiates the nature of the sinner. The confusion, engendered by the grotesque, recalled that all sin shares in the confusion of Hell. The role of laughter as a defensive mechanism distancing the horror has a religious analogue. Although a horrible deformation of the sinner’s own nature, when it is referred to God’s ultimate order, sin is fundamentally laughable. (The Grotesque in the York Mystery Plays: Dissertation by Dennis M Ryan 1974)
We can also see this vitiation and confusion in the physical and mental condition of Reznik. He is clearly trapped in a spiral of decline which is engendered by his violation of the moral order while also being completely oblivious to the connection of the physical with the metaphysical. It is the dawning realisation of this connection that constitutes the plot of the movie.
Deprived of this traditional understanding Reznik has to find an explanation for his condition as the confusion and disorder increases. The rational and mechanistic explanation of events relies on empirical evidence gathered from observations and experiments. It is the scientific method as employed by the accident investigators examining the cause of Miller’s injury:
Our job is to investigate these events from every possible angle so that we might prevent their recurrence.
When Reznik tells them that he was distracted by Ivan, he is informed that there is no such person working there. Using the same empirical mindset, Reznik is led to conclude that there is a conspiracy afoot to get rid of him by gaslighting him, making him doubt his own perceptions.
This term describes a form of psychological manipulation. It derives from a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton and was popularised by the 1944 film version Gaslight. The term has been revived in recent times by the competing narratives of the mainstream and the alternative media, the accusations of ‘fake news’, conspiracy theories and the pathologising of dissent. The movie here employs it in both a figurative and a literal sense when Reznik forgets to pay his electric bill and resorts to using gas lamps in his flat.
Reznik has rendered himself oblivious to his crime by blotting out the memory and effectively interring his own life in the automatism of the daily grind at the factory. The monotone slate-grey palette of the cinematography is slowly injected with colours to signal the return of the painful reality into Reznik’s self-imposed lockdown. An example of this is the red car of Ivan, which is the same type of car which Reznik was driving at the time of the hit and run incident. The shattering impact of his crime, which caused the flight from reality, is gradually being reconstructed and revealed to his conscious mind by allusions and uncanny coincidences. The rational empiricist in Reznik, the machinist, is oblivious to the symbolic realm and deals only with the externally verifiable and material realm. The cause must therefore lie in the material realm and be the result of gaslighting, a conspiracy of minds directed against him, however incredible it may seem, since any other realm is inaccessible to his stultified consciousness.
The pursuit of Ivan is an indirect path back to his displaced identity. By means of uncanny signs appearing within his paranoid mindscape and confounding his reason, he is being directed by his conscience to acknowledge his guilt, make a confession, and accept his punishment. Almost everything he experiences has some relation to the single event which remains unknown to both Reznik and the viewer until the final scenes. This hidden influence is interpreted as an orchestrated conspiracy and constitutes a sub-plot within the main storyline. We follow Reznik’s thought process as it tries to construct an explanatory narrative from the events and experience his confusion when the construction has to be reconfigured in the light of new revelations.
Part of his narrative involves the hallucinations regarding Maria and her son Nicholas. Here Reznik has taken memories of his own mother and his own childhood experiences, projecting them onto the victims of his crime. The visit to the fairground is based on a such a memory and the events that occur represent his struggle to construct a self-redeeming narrative from the confusion besetting him.
The concepts of sin and repentance are implicit in the plot of The Machinist but are carefully distanced by being presented in the ironic context of a children’s fairground ride, Route 666. Here Reznik, on an imaginary date with Maria and Nicholas, is confronted by mocking and macabre allusions to his crime and his guilt.
At the point of exit there is a branching of the route, and Nicholas steers the car to the left against Reznik’s advice. There are then flashes of light which are intercut with split-second scenes of the accident. The eclipse of consciousness which Reznik suffered is re-enacted here but projected onto the child in the form of an epileptic fit caused by the flashing lights.
This phantasmagoria brings Reznik close to realising the truth about his condition but he adds in dialogue which exonerates him and transforms the horror into a harmless incident:
I could kill myself for taking him on that ride.
It’s OK. It’s not your fault. He won’t even remember it. It’ll be as if nothing ever happened.
He furnishes Maria’s flat with items from his own past: his mother’s glass bowl; his record player; and a toy robot from his childhood.
The familiar, homely setting and the solicitude and absolution of Maria, is a re-write of both the accident and of the burgeoning relationship with the real woman in his life,Stevie.
His relationship with Stevie is alluded to by the Shady Lady Motel, and the scenes of punishment and submission depicted in there symbolise the circle of hell he has entered by his criminal action and which he can only escape by confronting his responsibility i.e. submission to his punishment.
A relationship with a hooker is by definition an avoidance of responsibility and there is a quality of the Madonna/Whore conception of female nature in his relations with Maria and Stevie. The oscillation between elevation and debasement and the subsequent conflict in a male character is a theme explored by Hitchcock in a number of his films. But in The Machinist this aspect is only sketched out to provide an illustration of Reznik’s psychotic state. Stevie has an ex whom she describes as ‘a fucking psycho’, and Reznik begins to suspect it may be Ivan, who is a projection of himself. To add to the confusion we see the wounded Reznik cradled in the arms of Stevie after the manner of a piéta.
This scene occurs after Reznik has deliberately become the victim of a traffic accident in order to obtain Ivan’s address from the police. The farcical desperation evident in this tactic illustrates the extent to which he is losing his grip on reality.
From this point onward the mindscape of Reznik darkens considerably as he descends deeper into psychosis. Shortly before the final truth dawns on him, he discovers the rotting fish in his refridgerator, thawed by the power-cut. Throughout the movie there are a number of fish images which are intended to foreshadow this scene:
In his psychotic scenario the fridge contains the dismembered body of Nicholas, the victim of Ivan. In reality it contains the buried memory of Nicholas symbolised by the fish caught on a trip with his co-worker Reynolds just before the accident. Like the fish his own life has been in deep freeze and the falling apart of his delusions, as well as his physical condition, reveals the ugly reality which has been held in suspense.
I KNOW WHO YOU ARE
We have become unfamiliar with the themes of conscience, guilt and repentance in our predominantly materialistic era where socio-political or bio-chemical explanations for human behaviour abound. The movie is clearly depicting the machinations of a mind and body vitiated by an immoral act. The morality plays of the medieval era, e.g. the York Mystery plays cited above, inculcated a doctrine which contained the experience of the individual and the community within a coherent overarching narrative. With the disintegration of a shared value system modern cinema, in contrast, resembles a carnival ‘hall of mirrors’ where serious movies are more often than not distorted by a crude ideological intent, or intensely subjective visions eschewing any didactic purpose.
The matrialistic self-absorption of modernity is nevertheless intruded upon by the uncanny resonances of the spiritual domain. The scenes of Reznik before a reflective surface, peering into the depths to catch a glimpse of an elusive presence, evoke the modern fascination with the ephemeral and the contingent while being haunted by the spiritual patrimony it has forgotten. The technological ‘machinist’ era is displacing the moral order in favour of the scientific order, the quantifiable and predictable mechanism. In this manner it vitiates human nature by uprooting it from the moral framework and inserting it into the framework of utility and functionality. The emaciated and paranoid figure of Reznik is the projection of a cultural conscience troubled by the vague apprehension of its own transgression and its own fate.