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The Machinist

There are some DVDs you know you want to rent, but for some reason you just... don't.

They sit there on the shelf every time you go into the store. They don't call out to you. They don't try to buttonhole you as you browse past them. They just sit there watching you, and waiting. You quite consciously move your eyes over the DVD's box, deliberately not seeing it but at the same time telling yourself, "Soon. Maybe next time I come in."

And then one day, you find yourself not caring about whatever it was that has kept you from renting the movie. You come upon it, you pick it up, and you take it home.

Why would I want to see a movie that features a grotesquely emaciated Christian Bale playing a character who has not been able to fall asleep for a year? Certain images we react to viscerally, after all. Beyond everything that you know about the context and effect of the Holocaust, for example, it's just plain hard to look at, in a reptilian brain sort of way, all those newsreels of people who look like walking skeletons. So, yeah, why would I want to rent a movie featuring a main character who looks like a barely-survivor of the Holocaust?

I've had a long string of not very interesting DVD rentals lately. When that happens, I start hungering, you should pardon the expression, for something I can sink my teeth into. I get "grabby". I just start grabbing things off the shelves, anything that looks even vaguely interesting, or anything that I've been hesitant about before.

What a good movie "The Machinist" is. Pretty much in your cinematically interesting, psychological thriller category, but it's not just glitzy-scary. It takes the time and trouble to actually be about a human being, or, at least be about problems human beings have always had to struggle with. Guilt, for example, and the inconvenience of having a conscience no matter how much you try to not have one. Suffice it to say that if you've ever, um, lost sleep over something you did -- even accidentally -- to somebody else, then there's something for you in this movie.

Great danger of spoilers when talking about "The Machinist", so I'm going to shut up about the story and instead talk briefly about something else in the movie I found fascinating.

As you watch the film, you get the feeling that the story is taking place somewhere in America, Los Angeles, I guess, or some other city in southern California, but there's something not quite right about that feeling. All the cars are American cars. The license plates appear to be Californian. The stop-lights are standard issue USA. But somehow you get the feeling that you are looking at an America that's been dreamed up by somebody. You can't really say why you feel that way. You just do. It doesn't look like a dreamed up America, but it sure feels like one.

Well, it turns out, and I didn't find this out until after I'd seen the DVD, the movie was shot in Spain -- Barcelona, to be precise -- made up to look like a southern Californian city. They did a good job of it. Making it look American, I mean. But there was just enough wrong -- and you can't even say precisely what was wrong -- for this Los Angeles to feel somehow dreamed up.

It's astonishing how many details we are picking up on, recording, analyzing, putting in the "something wrong here" category as we watch movies. I probably could go through the movie with my finger on the "Pause" key and make a list of all the details that make this Los Angeles feel not quite right. That would be an academic exercise I'm not particularly interested in.

What I am interested in is how well this effect works in service of the movie. Our main character has, in fact, not been able to sleep for a year. Having the story take place in a city that feels dreamed up reminds me of all those times I, myself, have been awake far too long -- when all the familiar things around me have started to feel foreign and creepy.

Shooting in Spain was the result of the makers shopping the script around in the USA for over two years, not finding the money, and then finding a production company in Spain that was excited about the script and wanted to put up the money. Maybe it was an accident, or maybe it was the director making the best of the situation (I suspect the latter since this guy clearly knows what he is doing), but whatever it was, the effect of it goes a long way toward persuading us to enter the world of the movie.

If you are without conscience, I guess you should probably skip this movie and go find something suitably sociopathic to do this evening. For the rest of us who know what guilt feels like, this movie is an unexpected gift.

A sleeper, you might say.

[Netflix, B & N, ]


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