The Machinist

(Note: This review was done without the cooperation of — indeed, against the wishes of — Paramount Classics, which at this time denied online film critics access to press screenings of its movies. Apparently they weren’t sure this whole “Internet” thing was going to take off.)

The key to making a good thriller with a twist ending is to focus on the thrills, not the twists. Films like “The Sixth Sense” and “Memento” work because they are enjoyable even before you find out all the details at the end. Films like “The Forgotten” and “The Village” don’t work because without their surprises, there’s nothing to them.

“The Machinist” gets it right. Its “surprise” turns out to be simple and not terribly surprising, but that isn’t a deficit, because the film doesn’t rely on it. An unsettling psychological thriller despite being composed of old, familiar parts, the film has an atmosphere that’s as scary and tense as anything else this year.

Much attention has been paid to Christian Bale, who lost more than 60 pounds to play the title role, a haunted blue-collar worker named Trevor Reznik. Trevor hasn’t slept in a year and looks like he hasn’t eaten in at least that long. Currently weighing in at 120 pounds, he is a ghastly skeleton of a man, a Gollum-ish specter who has begun to freak out his co-workers with his gaunt appearance and zombie-like demeanor.

His insomnia isn’t because he’s not tired; on the contrary, he is exhausted. One day he is distracted by a fellow employee, an evil-smiling bald man named Ivan (John Sharian), and his lack of concentration causes another co-worker to lose an arm on one of the machines. When Trevor tells his bosses he was caught off-guard by Ivan’s behavior, they tell him what we have already suspected, which is that there is no one named Ivan working at the factory.

Trevor fears he is losing his mind. He has a conversation with a diner waitress named Marie (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) that mirrors one he’d had earlier with Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the prostitute who has become his de facto girlfriend. Is it deja vu? Did one of the conversations not actually happen? Or is there something else afoot here?

The screenplay, by Scott Kosar (whose other work has been on remakes: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and the upcoming “Amityville Horror”), oozes with creepiness that is not, when everything is laid out, just random (like, say, much of the creepiness in “The Grudge”): a refrigerator that oozes blood; a hangman game magneted to said refrigerator. Trevor’s obsession with Ivan and the lengths to which he will go to find out who he is are astounding, and even absurd at first — until you consider all the facts and realize he is behaving just as a person would in his situation.

Director Brad Anderson has previously given us the amusing romantic comedy “Next Stop Wonderland,” some episodes of “The Shield” and “The Wire,” and a horror flick called “Session 9” that I have not seen but that takes place in an abandoned mental hospital, so I am intrigued. It is probably the latter that gave him the most useful warm-up for “The Machinist,” and he works the new film’s suspenseful elements like a virtuoso. He maintains a recurring motif of stick figures (including Trevor himself, of course), allows for several plausible explanations of the hangman game, and presents a vivid, hellish trip through an amusement-park ride that is utterly haunting.

Bale’s performance as a stricken ghost of a man is compelling, though overshadowed a bit by his horrific appearance. I can’t think of another instance of an actor doing so much to himself in order to look so bad. The effect is achieved, I guess: Trevor comes off as a pitiable, grotesque creature. Once he determines what’s destroying him, perhaps he’ll be able to get some sleep, and maybe a bite to eat.

B+ (1 hr., 42 min.; R, some harsh profanity, brief sexuality, brief nudity, some violent images.)