Physical transformation in the pursuit of a movie role is an American invention. When Robert De Niro gained 55 pounds to play Jake La Motta or Renée Zellweger gained 20 pounds (which is the equivalent of 60 on girl scales) to play Bridget Jones, their willingness to stuff themselves for art was seen as an admirable act of anti-vanity in our overweight yet weight-obsessed country. The incessant publicity coverage, meanwhile, ensured that we could never forget the sacrifices made by such attractive stars in the process of getting fat. Weight gain for profit has, weirdly, become its own form of vanity.
An even more troubling case of warped egotism jams up The Machinist, a grimy, excessively art-directed psychological horror flick written by Scott Kosar (last year’s remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and directed by Next Stop Wonderland’s Brad Anderson, starring Christian Bale in the title role. To play haunted insomniac Trevor Reznik — a lathe operator who, in a stupor of sleeplessness, endangers his workmates as well as his own sanity — the already trim actor dropped 63 pounds, starving himself down to a skeletal 120. And there’s not a minute we watch Bale, stumbling hollow-eyed through a green-gray world of alienation and paranoia (despite both the clammy comfort offered by Jennifer Jason Leigh as a call girl and the generic solace of Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijon as a waitress), that we dare forget the millions who have died — in famines, in sickness, in concentration camps — desperate for the nourishment Bale so arbitrarily declined to play a make-believe character in a movie. Such boniness is obscene.
”If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist,” the women in Trevor’s life tell him with motherly concern. But Bale exists all too large under the circumstances, a well-fed actor playing at emaciation for the sake of a fiction about a character whose torment is as unreadable as his vertebrae are countable.