While I have only ever seen two films directed by macabre horror writer Clive Barker, he is actually one of my favorite filmmakers. Hellraiser was the first reason, but this film, Lord of Illusions, is the biggest reason. Released in 1995 in the midst of a bad stretch of time for the horror genre, Clive Barker was ambitious in telling a film noir detective horror story. Theatrically, the film was not well represented with a lot of pertinent, quality scenes cutout for a tighter runtime, and box office was not very lucrative. I cannot find a record for the film’s budget, but I’m sure it exceeded the box office gross of $13 million. Thankfully, the home video market allowed Barker the opportunity to release his definitive director’s cut of this excellent film, and I can’t imagine anyone watching this film in any other way.
New York private detective Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) finds himself repeatedly drawn into disturbing supernatural events, much to his strong reluctance. He takes an insurance fraud case in Los Angeles as a change of pace, but soon, he finds himself in the world between illusion and true magic. The world’s greatest illusionist Philip Swann (Kevin J. O’Connor) is killed in a graphic on-stage accident, and Harry is driven to discover the truth behind it. Hired by Swann’s gorgeous wife Dorothea (Famke Janssen), Harry delves deep into the secretive world of magic, and encounters dangerous foes including the peculiar, yet lethal Butterfield (Barry Del Sherman). What Harry uncovers is that a cult leader named Nix (Daniel von Bargen), who could perform real magic and taught Swann to do so as well, is feared to be able to defy the grave that Swann and Dorothea put him in, and will return to exact horrific revenge upon the world. What Harry D’Amour may come to realize is that death is the ultimate illusion.
The film sets a very dangerous, foreboding tone right from the outset. A series of grim images of a decrepit, desolate wasteland open the picture telling you that dark, evil forces await us. This opening sequence shows Swann and his friends confronting Nix and his followers in the Mojave Desert thirteen years prior, and sets the stage for where Harry D’Amour will enter their unsettling lives in the present day. It clues you in on exactly what horrors Nix was capable of, and why Swann and his estranged friends now fear his return so gravely. The production design of Nix’s stronghold is perfectly macabre and disturbing. It has that dead-on Clive Barker dark, gritty style with a sort of grotesque beauty. It is photographed with a generous amount of shadow using the light to accentuate only certain sections of the environment. This style carries over into all the visually darker scenes creating a gorgeous film noir style. This is just a beautifully shot movie in any condition of light or shadow. While cinematographer Ronn Schmidt doesn’t have much in the way of high profile films to his résumé, I can surely tell he had a major wealth of artistic potential when coupled with the right director.
Clive Barker magnificently proves his talent and worth as a filmmaker here. I think Lord of Illusions really is a masterpiece of supernatural noir horror. It’s a greatly intelligent film that blends two very comparable genres together in a beautiful way. The film sets up the horror elements first with that amazingly chilling opening sequence, but doesn’t really explain anything to the audience. So, as Harry D’Amour is pulled into this plot, we still have questions that need answering, and it is a dangerous path for Harry to walk to reach those answers. There are plenty of secrets that many would kill to have or to keep hidden, but Harry is an intelligent enough hero to see through the spook tactics and walls of deception to get to that truth. The moments of horror are powerful such as the flashes Harry has of the exorcism he was involved in. The sight of the stark white demon is nightmarishly striking. Dorothea also has visions of blood and death which tell her that Nix’s return is soon to come. Butterfield’s strange lackey Miller also provides much in the way of savage gore and violence. How he survives a third story fall to the pavement enhances the bizarre nature of the film’s foes. Clive Barker knew how to use film as a canvas for brilliant brush strokes. Melding so many different complex aspects of this story would not be easy to do, but he had a clear and vibrant vision which he was able to realize. Not to mention, he brought us one of his absolute best creations ever.
I really love the Harry D’Amour character as portrayed by Scott Bakula. He is endlessly fascinating to me. A hardened private investigator who gets caught up in all manner of supernatural danger is so ripe with potential. The fact that he is reluctant to be wrapped up in this world, but is inevitably drawn to it makes for a great character dynamic. He’s a man that has subscribed to many faiths in his day, possibly to attempt to find answers or solace for the evil he has faced. It shows he’s a man of a wide open mind, but not without his skepticism. True to being a detective, he accepts nothing purely on face value alone. He has a probing mind with a keen intellect that makes him an interesting hero to follow. He’s intent on unraveling a mystery in a world built upon secrets. Scott Bakula gives a warm, soulful quality to D’Amour that comes to life opposite Dorothea. He also shows Harry to be a capable and confident man of action making him a very well-rounded character. He’s smart and perceptive as well as having a good heart that contrasts the darkness he’s engulfed in. Bakula did research the role, and helped add in more traits of what Barker had previously written for the character. The tattoo on Harry’s back resulted from that research and collaboration. Scott Bakula does an excellent job with this role that I wish fortunes could’ve allowed us to be exposed to beyond this film, but nothing is ever truly impossible. One can still hope for another prime opportunity to arise for Bakula and Barker to reunite.
When Clive Barker saw the headshot of Famke Janssen during casting, he knew he had found Dorothea. Her air of class and elegance truly shines through in this role. When Harry first sees her its in the golden late afternoon sunlight, and she couldn’t be more captivatingly beautiful. She easily captures Harry’s heart, and that leads the two down a very passionate path. Bakula and Janssen have a seductive chemistry that is captured magnificently by the camera. Their love scene is gorgeous. I like the fact that Lord of Illusions came just before Famke became a villainous Bond girl in GoldenEye. Thus, it gives Barker some special credit for recognizing her talent and beauty before her breakout role. As Dorothea, she is both vulnerable and strong creating a fine mix to make her a damsel in distress, but not one that’s afraid to fight for herself when the opportunity arises.
I have to admit that I love the character of Butterfield. He’s perfectly androgynous with a slinking quality that makes him very serpent like. Barry Del Sherman uses his body language fluidly as he slipped into the skin of this peculiar villain. It’s wonderfully written as a dangerous, off-beat character that one might not take seriously at first glance. However, Butterfield quickly demonstrates a lethal, sadistic quality that he uses in calculated fashion. He truly takes deep pleasure in the torturous methods he uses, and Del Sherman absorbs himself fully into that mindset. He portrays a wonderfully charismatic and juicy villain. It’s also an interesting dynamic that Butterfield aspires to be Nix’s one and only apprentice, but even Nix acknowledges that there is no one else worthy but Swann. While Swann gets to bask in the limelight of fame, Butterfield slinks his way through the dark underbelly of the world to prepare for Nix’s return, and he gets no respect for his loyalty or hard work from Nix.
Daniel von Bargen is a hell of a diverse actor that I have gained immense respect for over the years. He can do drop down hilarious comedy, but also, put in a frighteningly charismatic performance as Nix. What he does in the first few minutes of the film resonate throughout the rest of the picture. His horrific power haunts Swann, and that fear translates over to the audience very sharply. He is an awesome villain full of commanding presence and intense malevolence. The power von Bargen throws into this role is masterful creating something that could truly haunt your nightmares in terrifying fashion. He clearly had a fun time portraying this intense, chilling character.
Another amazingly diverse actor is Kevin J. O’Connor. You may know him from his turn as the cowardly Beni from Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy, or from the Patrick Swayze television drama The Beast. As Philip Swann, he gives us a very unique performance. I like how the film opens without presenting a clear hero to you. Swann is not a confident or particularly stable person, and not the type to gravitate to as a protagonist. He is very shaken by fear, and later on in life, he’s not a content man. He has fame, wealth, and a beautiful woman at his side. However, it’s the creeping knowledge of what Nix vowed he would do, defy death, that endlessly troubles him. If he can do that, Swann cannot imagine what greater terrors he could unleash. Even with all the power Swann possesses, he knows that Nix is more powerful, but most importantly, he has the will to do things Swann never would. Nix messed with his mind once, and he’s never been able to shake that. O’Connor passionately displays the depth of those turbulent emotional and psychological elements so well. He makes Philip Swann a greatly fascinating and fractured character that maintains the foreboding tone of the film.
The supporting cast really put their all into their roles. They add to the eclectic flavor of these textured and distinct characters. Joel Swetow makes Valentin a very sophisticated but shady character. He furthers adds to the mysterious and treacherous aspects of the plot. All of the characters appearing in the Magic Castle sequence, portraying illusionists of all sorts, also really boost those spooky and colorful qualities of the film. It’s just a damn solid cast that Barker put together. There’s not a single weak link anywhere at all.
Clive Barker turned to the absolute masters of special make-up effects in KNB EFX Group for this film. Their work has been unparalleled. Whatever they do, big or small, severe or subtle, it always hold weight on film. What they did here is bring the gory and challenging imagination of Clive Barker to perfect life. The make-up on the resurrected Nix is purely, excellently disgusting, as it should be. The protrusion in his forehead is something I still cannot stomach to look at. Conversely, the digital visual effects are damn well up to standards. The early scene of Nix juggling fire is seamless and convincing, and the effect of Swann levitating a car over Harry’s head is quite well handled. Of course, I’m sure many would contend with the later scene of the apparition that attacks Harry and Dorothea late in the film, but Barker wanted it to look as it did. He did not want those effects to be dead-on realistic. He wanted a dream-like, unreal quality to them, and to a point I believe it worked. I’m sure something a little more refined could’ve benefitted the sequence better, but I generally have no criticism about it.
The film has a very strong, haunting score by Simon Boswell. It’s an excellent piece of work that regularly keeps the tension and ominous qualities present, but it also has its moments of beauty as with the Harry and Dorothea love scene. A sensual saxophone chimes in to delve into that seductive passion. The music during Swann’s stage show is marvelously theatrical. In its most climactic moments, the score is powerful and darkly operatic. Overall, it’s an immensely effective composition for a film with such diverse qualities.
Lord of Illusions has its generous share of heightened tension and frightening danger. The opening and ending sequences with Nix bring the full boar horror in all its macabre glory. In the bulk of the film, though, we have action based excitement with D’Amour, and some gory visuals that re-instill the haunting, chilling aspects of the story. This is not a splatter film with some brutal threat stalking the characters. It’s very supernatural with a more ominous threat stirring up their deepest fears. The atmosphere is very strong regularly keeping an audience on edge, and keeping them enthralled as each new layer of the mystery is pulled back. With lives being lost as he gets deeper into this and becomes more invested in Dorothea, Harry can’t just walk away. It’s a great way to wrap the hero up in the story, and drive him forward in the face of ungodly horror. Harry never gives into fear, and remains determined in even the darkest moments of the film.
The final act is powerful and amazing. It serves as the proper climax to this story which pits apprentice against master in a chilling and grotesque confrontation that still manages to keep D’Amour relevant to the outcome. It bookends the film smartly bringing Nix back in a far more chilling state than before. The disturbing cultist aspects of the movie really are driven home by this point, and have an ironic, vile pay-off here. It further sells the grave lethality and power of Nix. This entire prolonged sequence is like a slow decent into the horrific depths of hell, and there is no one better suited for the task of realizing that than Clive Barker. This ending will leave you still unsettled as the end credits roll.
If there’s one horror film that has inspired me as a screenwriter more than any other, it would be Lord of Illusions. This would be the genre I would want to play around in because Clive Barker realized it so well here. There’s a vast untapped potential for this supernatural noir genre, and this film is a prime example of that potential. Barker wrote a brilliant screenplay based on his short story The Last Illusion, and turned it into one of the best, most original and intelligent horror films I have ever seen. Thus, it is one of my favorite films of all time. This film far exceeds expectations realizing every element and aspect with amazing, top notch quality. It is only a shame that the studio difficulties Barker faced with this film caused him to turn away from ever directing another film again. Fortunately, it has not ceased him being a producer on a number of film adaptations of his written work. I think Clive Barker is one of the best masters of horror because has never let me down. If this turns out to be the final film he ever directs, no one could ask for a better final bow than Lord of Illusions.
The year of 1995 was a great one for the crime genre, and one of my favorite years in movies. This year saw the release of Michael Mann’s Heat, David Fincher’s Se7en, and this, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. In my opinion, all three films are exceptional, unique, and standard bearers of their subgenres of crime. The Usual Suspects falls very much into that film noir category. It is a great film, but some say it has no re-watchability due to the twist ending. I happen to disagree. This is a film that has more than just story to satisfy, and I hope my insights here will help you see that.
San Pedro, California is the stage for the aftermath of a fiery mystery on a ship in the bay. Law enforcement discovers 27 bodies and $91 million worth of drug money, and has attracted the interest of the FBI and U.S. Customs. The only survivors are a severely burned Hungarian and the crippled con man Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey). Verbal tells the story of how he and four other felons were rounded up and put into a line-up six weeks ago in New York for a trumped up charge about heisted gun parts. They are the wisecracking hijacker Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack), the short tempered and egotistical professional thief Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), his accent-heavy partner Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), and the real prize for the NYPD is Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a corrupt former cop who has supposedly given up a life of crime. However, U.S. Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), who has a deep, invested interest in determining the fate of Dean Keaton, is not willing to let Verbal go without digging deeper into his story. He learns that the five men forge a loose accord to engage in a series of daring, highly profitable heists that lead them out to Los Angeles into an unforeseen, threatening situation. As Kujan probes Verbal for the truth, FBI Special Agent Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) discovers that the Hungarian says he saw the devil, he saw Keyser Soze. He is the most feared and mythic of crime figures, and no one has been able to identify him, until now. Verbal’s story unfolds as Kujan and his colleagues slowly assemble the fragmented pieces of this puzzle which may lead directly to the identity of Keyser Soze.
I’m starting with the cinematography and music here because they are where the atmosphere of the film thrives. Newton Thomas Siegel was the director of photography, same as the later made Denzel Washington film Fallen. I previously reviewed that here, and highly praised the look, feel, and cinematography of that film. This film further solidifies Siegel’s rich talent in my view. He does absolutely brilliant work in evoking such strong and mysterious moods throughout the film with both his camera work and the lighting. It is a gorgeous example of film noir visuals in the color medium. Light and shadow are indeed key, but the subtle color temperatures give the right tinge of atmosphere and tone in key scenes. The compositions are very well plotted out to have, sometimes, double meanings upon first and second viewings. The staging and angles of the scenes between Spacey and Palminteri are amazingly well handled to never make it feel like the same old thing every time. There’s a new angle, a new composition, a new way the scene is played out in that limited physical space every time the film cuts back to it, and it all feels natural from the development of emotions and storytelling. Much of this is indeed a well planned out idea from the filmmaking team as a whole, but Siegel executes it with amazing skill and artistry.
John Ottman, who was also the editor, created a fantastic score that lives and breathes on its own. Listening to the soundtrack is a brilliant, vibrant pleasure. It has character and personality while maintaining the subtle style of the storytelling. The theme itself is great and is instantly recognizable when it hits, and it really drives the story forward in certain parts. There’s a nice flourish in the opening arrest montage where some steel drums chime in once Fenster is introduced. Just that little bit of Caribbean flavor conveys something to the audience about the character before he ever says a single word. That’s such a smart piece of work. Overall, Ottman’s score brings all the mysterious, suspicious, suspenseful, and dramatic elements of the film together in a powerful and vibrant way. As with the cinematography, it evokes a strong film noir style while still feeling contemporary.
Furthermore, Ottman’s editing is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Not just in how each scene itself is cut together, but how everything flows together. How the film transitions from present time to flashback and back again. I don’t know how much of it was in the script, but the execution is what truly matters. Things are well punctuated in these transitions allowing for the dramatic narrative to hit the right beats in the right context. Ottman knows when to pull us into and out of a flashback, and exactly how to do it. That also feeds much into the sound editing and design. It all feels organic and entirely in sync to create a cohesive flow and objective in pinpointing these moments. There is so much one can learn of good structural flow of a narrative by watching this film. I also love how there are many moments where Ottman and Singer just let the camera roll on the actor. They don’t cut away or mess with anything. They just let the actor work the moment, and that is so important in a film with this kind of cast and enveloping dramatic story.
And this film does have an immensely powerful and amazing cast! Everyone is great, but I think Chazz Palminteri is my favorite. As Dave Kujan, he’s smart, sharp minded, and subtly charismatic. The range he shows here is impressive. Kujan can be laid back talking friendly with Sergeant Rabin or Agent Baer, but then, he can shift into the probing investigative mind trying to deconstruct Verbal’s story and psyche. Yet, he can turn it up further getting right into Verbal’s face, and trying shake him up with his intense, confrontational words. Kujan is a driven law enforcement agent, but he never lets his invested interest in Dean Keaton get the better of him. He keeps it all in check, and works the case to the very best of his ability. He just wants the full truth so he can lay that interest to rest. Chazz balances all these elements of Kujan perfectly. He shows wonderful chemistry with everyone he shares the screen with further solidifying his role as main protagonist. He really commands the screen, but Spacey owns it just as much with a more subtle performance.
Kevin Spacey truly deserved the numerous awards he received for this performance. It is very intelligent, but underplayed. Verbal is a little quirky and socially awkward. He rambles on, but Spacey works all these elements into every moment of the performance. It’s never an abrupt shift in focus for the character. It’s a cohesive whole of Verbal’s personality. It all has purpose, even more so on repeat viewings. The body language of Verbal is also greatly realized as Spacey did extensive research for the character’s cerebral palsy to get all of it right. It adds further to Verbal’s perceived weakness. His physical weakness begets his weakness of will. The splashes of emotion with fear, self-pity, and pain are very powerful making Verbal appear to be a very sympathetic character. Still, the moments of sharp intellect slip through Verbal’s more cowering exterior, and really help sell that he’s not as foolish or naive as he sometimes appears to be.
Gabriel Byrne is excellent as well. He greatly reflects Keaton’s struggle between the ex-convict and the man trying to be legitimate. How the system won’t let him be that better man now, and how it drives him back into being the man they expect him to be. While he tries to deny that he is not the man Dave Kujan claims he is anymore, he quickly falls back into being that man. It is who he is, and Byrne is able to show how Keaton is unable to contently balance those two parts of his being. It’s a man fighting his nature who seems more comfortable and confident as the man he doesn’t want to be. It’s a fascinating dynamic that Gabriel Byrne pulls off with great ease and a dark, mysterious, and foreboding depth. He’s electric on the screen, and is entirely compelling. You can never quite get a handle on what his objective or intentions are, and that makes Dean Keaton terribly intriguing. As Bryan Singer says on the commentary, “Gabriel is the most easily complex actor.”
The supporting cast adds further flavor to the film. Stephen Baldwin’s McManus is an arrogant, hard-up man with attitude and ego to spare. As he himself says, he believes that “there is nothing that can’t be done.” He truly believes that the reward is worth the risk, every time. He plays off of Benicio del Toro’s Fenster beautifully. Benicio takes a character that was, admittedly, nothing special on the page, and gave him a memorable, standout quality. He created a whole character out of next to nothing, and the performance really put him on the map. Kevin Pollack adds plenty of levity, but not without his own bolstering attitude as Todd Hockney. How he and McManus clash constantly gives the team dynamic some needed conflict and turbulence. These are guys who joined up out of happenstance, not because they’re friends. Even Keaton and McManus have conflicts like when meeting Peter Greene’s wonderful character of Redfoot. He’s a fence, a guy who can move and sell stolen goods to discrete buyers. Greene gives him a fine Los Angeles quality with his slightly flashly entourage and charismatic style. Still, he’s a tough guy who doesn’t take any crap when McManus starts chewing him out after a job goes awry. For whatever reason, Greene didn’t take a screen credit for this film. Regardless, I really love the vibe he brings with him. He adds a shady element into the story as he can appear friendly, but under the surface, he’s all about his own agenda. He doesn’t mind manipulating anyone or putting other people in danger as long as he gets what he needs in the end. John Ottman even throws in a distinct musical cue for his two appearances that I also love.
The late Pete Postlethwaite always delivered fantastic performances giving them his all. As Kobayashi, he is a great conduit for the mythic Keyser Soze. He conveys authority without force or confrontation. His words and tone carry all the weight that is needed. Kobayashi knows that what he has to say is enough to rattle these men, and doesn’t have to dress it up at all. He’s very straight forward and matter of fact, but still with a questionable quality. He seems legit enough, but he leaves enough suspicion and truth with these men to keep them on edge. Enough to scare them, but not enough to for them to leverage their way out. Postlethwaite underplays the role just enough making him threatening and foreboding enough without betraying the professional manner of the character. He is exceptionally effective.
Another great addition to the supporting cast is Giancarlo Esposito as FBI Agent Jack Baer. He has a very fine charisma and upbeat attitude along with a nice feel for old style film noir sensibilities. He fits in here smoothly. Dan Hedaya is entertaining and enjoyable as Sergeant Rabin. He’s a bit strung out, but that just adds a more hectic element to the character dynamics in that police station. He adds to the texture of a film already rich with great characters.
Keyser Soze is one of the most brilliant cinematic creations of all time. A crime lord that purports his own myth through the fears and exaggerated stories of others. He just lays the seeds for it, and allows it to grow to service his own advantage. He works from the shadows, never allowing anyone but an extreme few to ever see his face. Anyone else who works for him almost never knows that they are doing so, and anyone who thinks they are can never be certain that they are. As Kobayashi says, “One cannot be betrayed if one does not have any people.” A spook story for criminals is perfectly film noir. Soze is an urban legend. Something that is so hard to grasp the truth about that you doubt it, but you dare not dismiss it in case any of it might be true. I also love that the subject of Keyser Soze doesn’t even appear until nearly an hour into the film, but the mystery of him exists from the start. This allows the story, characters, and the world they inhabit to be firmly established and grounded in reality before this mythic figure is truly introduced. With the introduction of him, it elevates the tension and danger for everyone.
The story structure is also quite fascinating. You have both a mystery happening in the present time while the supposed back story of the mystery is being told by one character. However, the one character, Verbal Kint, is constantly challenged on information he held back from the District Attorney. Verbal is shown to be not entirely forthcoming, and abridging his tale to protect his own self. So, Kujan has to keep probing to get the full disclosure. Thus, while you are getting engrossed in Verbal’s story, every once in a while, the audience has to question just how authentic his storytelling is. However, as the pieces of the puzzle are slowly put together by Kujan, Baer, and Rabin, you can see there is some truth in what Kint is saying. A lie is most convincing when it’s wrapped in some truth, and that is the screenwriting brilliance of this film. Lies and truth get so intermixed that it is nearly impossible to separate them. I also love that the film opens with that docks scene which is objectively presented. It’s not part of Verbal’s narrative to Kujan, and so, you know that this did happen as you see it. It’s just a matter of how they got there.
For me, the re-watch value of The Usual Suspects comes, primarily, from the fantastic performances, but also, the strong film noir tone. This is an excellent example of film noir in a contemporary movie. The mystery elements are still compelling upon repeat viewings due to how well constructed and presented they are. It’s a film that allows to see new things and put new pieces together every time you watch it. They are subtle things, but if you’re watching it with a probing mind like Dave Kujan, you can weed out a little more of what is truth and what is not. Even the seemingly most throwaway expression or action can turnaround with a new meaning. However, it is a film I wish I could watch again for the first time. Partly because I don’t recall what my reaction to the film was originally watching it on VHS in 1996, but because it is so effectively structured and executed that I’d love to have that feeling of tension and apprehension which comes from a fresh first viewing. Plus, I believe I fell asleep in the middle of watching it the first time. So, that sort of spoils the experience.
The chemistry amongst the cast is just electrifying. Everyone slips nicely into their characters, and the dynamics between them are rich and vibrant. Everyone makes a firm impression that is quite memorable. That is not an easy feat with an ensemble cast, but Bryan Singer handled these heavyweights extremely well. When one has the talent for being an exceptional director, it will always shine through, and this could not have been a better first major impression for Singer to make. He had done some smaller films before this, but they were not truly in the public eye. This was his first major motion picture with serious, high profile acting talents. While he had only a $6 million budget, the talents involved elevate the overall technical and artistic quality of the picture. Looking back, while it doesn’t have quite as much scale as some are accustomed to, it’s not really a film that requires much. The action is conservative because it services the plot, but it is nicely handled. The entire sequence on the boat is expertly shot, choreographed, edited, and paced. Nothing gets lost in the process of bullets and explosions. Again, the plot and characters maintain control of the film’s focus throughout.
The Usual Suspects is just an excellent crime thriller that is atmospheric, exciting, and enthralling. There are very distinct and dimensional characters everywhere you look that make it an entertaining and intriguing narrative. Everyone behind the camera came together to create one amazing film that flowed beautifully and coherently allowing the pieces of the puzzle to slowly slip into place, but not give you a full picture. It leaves you thinking and wondering, and that is an excellent accomplishment for any mystery. You need not answer all questions for the story to be satisfying. It merely has to keep you hooked in with a cleverly written plot, and that is the foundation for what made this a great film. I give much respect to Christopher McQuarrie for writing such an intelligent script, and to Bryan Singer for crafting a film that remains entertaining and interesting no matter how many times I watch it.
This is a unique film. Helmed by Brad Anderson, the director of Session 9, and written by Scott Kossar, screenwriter of the recent remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre & The Amityville Horror. I’ve never seen Anderson’s work before, but I’ve heard good things about it. Whatever the case, The Machinist pulsates with rare talent and dedication for a style of film that few venture into. The most shockingly impactful display of dedication comes from Christian Bale (American Psycho, Batman Begins) who shed 63 lbs for this gaunt, troubled role leaving him at a frail 120 lbs. The scenes showing his skeletal physique will just blow your mind. With this being such a unique film, a plot synopsis cannot go into details without spoiling anything.
Simply put, there is something wrong with Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale), but what it is, even he doesn’t know. Trevor is a machinist that has wasted away to the point where “if you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.” But what happens to be worse is that Trevor has not slept in a year. Trevor is in such bad shape that his machine factory co-workers believe he’s doing drugs, but it’s hardly the case. Still, the deterioration of his physical and mental state beg the question, “what the hell happened to him?” On the brighter side, Trevor has two women in his life – the lover and the mother. The lover is Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is a very warm and affectionate girl who happens to be a prostitute, but is certainly more to Trevor than that. The mother is Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) who is a mother to a young boy, and gives Trevor some company while drinking coffee in the late night hours. Still, Trevor has recently become very interested in a supposed co-worker named Ivan (John Sharian) who he’s never seen before, and comes off a little creepier than anyone would be comfortable with. But what’s even creepier is that no one at the factory seems to know who he is – it’s as if he doesn’t exist. Although, to Trevor, he is very real, and Ivan continues to haunt Trevor to no end. Then, there’s the mystery of who’s leaving post-it notes on Trevor’s refrigerator door – taunting him with a game of hangman. Paranoia is only the beginning as Trevor tries to decipher this bizarre mystery, and ultimately, discover what secrets are buried in his scattered, tired mind. Like the tagline says, How do you wake up from a nightmare when you’re not asleep?
The sparkling gem in this film is truly Christian Bale. Beyond any other performance of his, this is the one that demonstrates the extremes Bale will goto for a great role. His dedication is full heart, body, and soul. He has a passion for film and acting that is just as unique and rare as this film. Bale practically starved himself to reach this striking physical goal, and believe me, you won’t be able to understand how anyone could live in this condition. Trevor’s a bit lighthearted about it all, and doesn’t really let it bother him (frankly, he’s got much more pressing matters at hand). Bale’s performance here is powerhouse indeed, treading through a flood of emotions over the course of the film. I simply cannot praise Bale’s acting talents enough, there aren’t the words for it. He is truly one of the greatest actors of our time, and I’m glad to be a witness to it.
The rest of the cast is very complementary as well. Michael Ironside’s role as Miller, a co-worker of Trevor’s that suffers an unfortunate mishap at the factory, is small but interesting. Ironside’s always so typecast as a villain or a hard-ass tough guy, it’s nice to see him as someone more light-hearted. Jennifer Jason Leigh is, as always, a wonderful talent. She’s done some fantastic roles in the past, and while this role as Stevie is more understated, she has heart and sympathy. Leigh is still a beautiful woman, and brings a needed bit of consult to Trevor’s troubled mind. Aitana Sánchez-Gijón (pronounce it if you can) is the overnight waitress at an airport coffee shop that Trevor visits every night. She’s also a mother with a son named Nicholas (gives me a smile) that Trevor befriends on Mother’s Day. And probably the capper is the mysterious and creepy Ivan as portrayed by John Sharian. He essentially haunts Trevor throughout the movie, and makes himself very suspect by the fact that he comes off as overtly suspicious. He seems like a sociopath, but there’s something far more unforeseen about him than that. Furthermore, his look is great! It was augmented to make him appear creepier than normal with a false set of larger teeth and a mangled hand (which is exceptionally freaky). Sharian plays up the role, but not too much. His look takes a lot of credit for Ivan’s effectiveness, and Sharian really has quite the Brando mojo going here.
Another striking element here is the cinematography and the entire visual design of the film. There are a lot of filters used, making the film take on a cold, monotone feel, but there is one or two scenes with a warmer look. Though, the surreal, unwelcoming visuals are what dominate the film. And while the story is set in L.A., it was actually shot in Spain, and I feel that the visual style applied here really pushes the film towards a more European look. The pitfalls, but I think it helps the film seem more surreal. The cinematography is absolutely wonderful, very inspired – admittedly – by Hitchcock among other things. It’s amazing work that is rarely seen these days. I mean, this is photography where the entire film is a large canvas that is painted on with great care. That’s much like how the script is with many layers, details, and textures that are slowly put together before we ultimately see the entire masterwork. The score also blends these elements together. It’s another Hitchcock-inspired detail, and has a very special, unique quality. Some films don’t utilize the score as a storytelling device, but here it is used to perfect potential. It definitely enhances all parts of the film with the eerie, mysterious qualities being in the forefront. Roque Baños has a rare talent for a style of score that isn’t heard enough any more.
Now, where everything really connects is director Brad Anderson. Again, I’ve never seen any of his other work, but I have to believe it’s just amazing. The talent he displays in this film, between subtle and obvious, is remarkable. Not a whole lot of directors develop their own personal style, but when they do, it makes them that much better. Anderson definitely leaves his mark with The Machinist. Whether it’s driving the actors, planning out the action in a scene, or what have you, he delivers a wonderfully crafted work of film. It would certainly take a very competent and highly skilled director to make this script work, but not only does it work, it lives, it breathes. Brad Anderson really made a potentially very confusing story and made it compelling, intriguing, thrilling, and engaging. He slowly reels you in, and you have no desire to pull away until the very end.
All in all, this is a great film. It’s strong, eerie, and by the end, will definitely have you in an array of emotions. It’s somber and strange, but Brad Anderson makes sense of it all. The entire cast is a pleasure with Christian Bale putting in everything he had, and showing his dedication and devotion on every single frame. The photography is something not seen since Hitchcock, and the score resides in that same class. Simply put, everything and everyone here makes this film everything it was meant to be and more. This is one great piece of filmmaking, and I highly recommend everyone check it out sooner than later. A pure 10 out of 10!