We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 31 Aug 6:25PM
Having been unable to sleep for a year, an emaciated factory worker is tortured by paranoia and guilt. Christian Bale sheds a third of his body weight for Brad Anderson's bleak psychological thriller
It was Christian Bale's extraordinary transformation from muscular hunk to stooping skeleton that generated alarm when The Machinist first hit the festival circuit in 2004. The sight of his emaciated frame was certainly the most distressing example of body modification seen in the cinema for some time.
Subsisting on an apple and a can of tuna a day, Bale went from 13 and a half stone (86kg) to just over nine (60kg) to play tortured lathe operator Trevor Reznik, a man whose epic insomnia has reduced his life to a dazed cycle of paranoid delusion. Social interaction is restricted to hazy encounters with two women. Waitress Marie (Gíjon-Sánchez) works at the anonymous airport café where Reznik whiles away his nights, and for a while seems to hold the promise of redemption. Prostitute Stevie (Leigh) satisfies the one appetite Reznik mysteriously retains, but her tender attention makes it clear she'd like to base their relationship on commitment rather than commerce.
Shunned at work after accidentally causing a colleague to lose an arm, Reznik is pursued by the laughing Ivan (Sharian), whose severed thumb has been replaced by a pincer-like big toe, and who may or may not be responsible for the incomplete hangman puzzles mysteriously appearing in Reznik's flat. For Reznick, reality is at once shifting, distant and lurid - an endless nightmare unrelieved by sleep, cast by director Anderson in the cloudy blue-grey of a week-old bruise.
Vertigo, Fight Club, Memento and Polanski's The Tenant are handy references to Reznik's fractured emotional environment. Writer Scott Kosar's plotting, efficient though it is, lacks the scientific precision of Memento, and The Machinist's hermetically sealed, private landscape prevents it from achieving the grand resonance of Fincher's film. In part, that's the point. Impressively dedicated to his own murky, quasi-industrial aesthetic, Anderson maintains Reznik's reduced perspective, grounds the story in powerlessness and paranoia, then summons the sourceless dread associated with Reznik's reading matter - Dostoyevsky and Kafka.
While this is all convincingly sick in tone, it's Bale's extraordinary physique that generates most discomfort. "If you were any thinner," says Stevie, "you wouldn't exist". Reznik's manager puts it less delicately: "You look like toasted shit." Anderson's camera rises over Bale's jagged spine, lowlights his corrugated rib cage. When Reznik reaches for the ceiling in Stevie's bathroom he looks like a carcass on a butcher's hook. All of which might be gratuitously Methodical, if the weight loss did not illustrate a point about Reznik's disintegration with grim efficiency - a point Anderson makes again with a quietly chilling glimpse of the way Reznik once was. Leigh's role is small but her character's kindness provides a beacon in the festering gloom, and the film's trips into the surreal - a bad trip of a fairground ride - benefit from the same dim colouring and muted matter-of-factness with which Anderson shades the whole film.
It hinges on a revelation that isn't implausible, but there's no salvation, no deliverance, and the light at the end of the tunnel is the glare of an oncoming truck. Yet out of this material Anderson creates a film that's highly atmospheric, propelled by a compelling mystery, and in which Reznik's private trauma is made both haunting and uncomfortably raw.
If Nine Inch Nails, Swans and Ministry ever loomed large in the landscape of your imagination, Anderson's gloomy aesthetic may exert a sour but lingering pull.
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