Analysis of “The Machinist”

The Machinist is a 2004 Spanish/American/French/British psychological horror film written by Scott Kosar and directed by Brad Anderson. It stars Christian Bale as Trevor Reznik, an emaciated, insomniac machinist unable to cope with guilt feelings. His worsening mental state causes him to spiral into a psychotic break with reality.

This is one of Bale’s best performances in my opinion. His dedication to the role–outstripping that of Robert De Niro (who gained about 60 pounds for Raging Bull)–involved losing 62 pounds. Michael Ironside, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Sharian, and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón all play supporting roles.

Here are some quotes:

“If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.” –Stevie, to Trevor

Trevor Reznik: Stevie, I haven’t slept in a year.
Stevie: Jesus Christ!
Trevor Reznik: I tried him too.

“Congratulations, Reznik. You just made my shit-list!” –Tucker

Marie: Trevor, is someone chasing you?
Trevor Reznik: Not yet. But they will when they find out who I am.

“A little guilt goes a long way.” –Trevor

“How do you wake up from a nightmare if you’re not asleep?” –movie tagline

Trevor Reznik: I wish there was some way I could repay you.
Miller: Well, for starters you could give me your left arm.

Ivan: Oh, no. You look like you seen a ghost.
Trevor Reznik: Funny you should say that. The guys at work don’t think you exist.
Ivan: That’s why I can’t get a raise.

“You’re going straight to Hell on Route 666!” –‘Route 666’ Loudspeaker

“I’d like to report a hit-and-run.” –Trevor [repeated line]

[after realizing his fault] “I know who you are… I know who you are… I know who you are… I know who you are.” –Trevor

“Right now I wanna sleep. I just want to sleep.” –Trevor [last line]

The film begins, actually, towards the end of the story. Trevor is at the height of his psychosis, disposing of a body rolled up in a rug into the ocean at night. Someone with a flashlight shines it in his face, agitating him. Nothing else is revealed of the scene at the time: we’ll have to wait until the end of the film to find out. This refusal to let the truth be known will be a feature of Trevor’s psychology, as we’ll see later.

Trevor Reznik’s name is a pun on Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails; this is appropriate, given the downward spiral that Trevor is experiencing. The Machinist is also influenced by Dostoyevsky‘s novella, The Double, just as Black Swan is. Ivan is Trevor’s double…but which one is the good version of him, and which the bad? It isn’t who Trevor thinks it is.

Actually, there are a lot of doubles in this movie, a lot of pairings: Trevor and Ivan, Trevor and Miller (Ironside), Maria (Sánchez-Gijón) and Stevie (Leigh), Maria and the actual server in the airport diner, Supervisor Furman and Tucker, Maria and Nicholas, and even Trevor and Stevie, and him and Maria. I’ll explain each of these pairings now.

Ivan is Trevor’s double in that he is a hallucinated projection of everything Trevor wishes he could forget about himself. This is why, psychologically and metaphorically speaking (as opposed to the physiological cause–his insomnia), he’s emaciated: he wants to remove so much of himself that he would thin himself to death; hence Stevie’s remark that if he were any thinner, he wouldn’t exist. Trevor reacts to this joke in a spirit of levity, moving almost like a ghost, for he, with his death drive, would like to project so much of himself outward (i.e., out into Ivan) that he would disintegrate.

Trevor can be doubled with Miller in that, in causing the accident that costs Miller his left arm, Trevor is projecting his own psychological fragmentation onto Miller. Trevor is distracted by his hallucination of Ivan, which causes Trevor to lean on and press the activator (which then can’t be turned off), which in turn causes Miller’s sleeved arm to be stuck and pulled into the cutting zone of the mill, where his hand is then mutilated. Later, the same accident almost happens to Trevor, who flips out on his coworkers, imagining in his paranoia that they have tried to get revenge on him.

He wants to project his own violence onto others instead of admitting his guilt to himself. He would tear the ugly parts of himself away and give them to others, to his Ivan hallucination, to his coworkers; he’d even project his unconscious fantasies of self-injury and of the reducing of his body to nothingness (manifested otherwise by being hit by a car outside the DMV, and by his emaciation) onto Miller by ‘accidentally’ hacking off his arm.

Maria and Stevie are doubles in that both women serve as metaphorical mirrors of what Trevor would like to see smiling back at him, to remind him that there still is something good inside of him, making him worthy of love. These women give him his desired recognition of the Other that Lacan wrote of. As mirrored reflections of his need for love, both women are thus each a double of Trevor. Maria even repeats Stevie’s line that if he were any thinner, he wouldn’t exist.

These reflections are illusory, though, in that Stevie is a prostitute whose affections he is paying for (recall when she says, worrying about him dying of insomnia, “You’re my best client. Can’t afford to lose you.”; then he sarcastically says, “Gee, thanks.”); and Maria is every bit as much a hallucination as Ivan is. Thus, with Maria as a fantasy waitress compared with the real server in the airport diner seen towards the end of the film, both waitresses are doubles of each other.

Trevor’s boss, Supervisor Furman, is a somewhat gentler version of the foreman–nasty, scowling Tucker (Furman–foreman: note the pun). Their power and authority over Trevor and the other machinists reflect the worker alienation felt under capitalism. One worker calls out, “Master Tucker, motherfucker,” so they don’t like the foreman…but they dislike Trevor so much more. The existence of unions, the earnestness of the investigation of Miller’s accident, and Miller’s pay settlement can smooth over the rough edges of a working life under capitalism only so much: imagine how much worse it is in sweatshops in the Third World. Trevor’s job is, sadly, among the best American capitalism can offer the working class. Furman is thus like the ‘good cop,’ and Tucker is the ‘bad cop.’

Finally, Maria and her son, Nicholas, can be seen as doubles in that both are harmed by Trevor’s accidentally hitting and killing her boy. He dies, and she is emotionally scarred by the loss…both are victims of Trevor’s hit-and-run irresponsibility, and therefore personify his repressed guilt.

In this connection, it’s interesting to note Trevor’s ride with hallucinated Nicholas in “Route 666” in the amusement park scene. As I’ve explained elsewhere, 666 refers to the Roman emperor Nero, who had his mother, Agrippina the Younger, killed (and who, it was rumoured, committed incest with her), and who also–or so it was once believed–kicked his pregnant wife, Poppaea Sabina, causing her to have a miscarriage. The historicity of the kicking and incest are dubious, but we’re concerned with theme and symbolism here, not with historical accuracy.

Trevor is well-read; we see him in his apartment reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot early in the film. He also has a good vocabulary, far better than Miller’s. This all suggests that he’d be well-educated enough to know about such things as Nero’s wickedness, if not the historical inaccuracy and bias of Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter of whom gave this uncorroborated account of the kicking in The Twelve Caesars: “Though [Nero] doted on Poppaea…he kicked her to death while she was pregnant and ill, because she complained that he came home late from the races.” (Nero, 35, page 233)

My point in mentioning all of this is that Trevor–in fantasizing about going with Nicholas on the “Route 666” ride–is unconsciously associating his guilty self with the mother-killing, child-killing, incestuous Nero of legend (if not exactly of history). In killing the boy physically by hitting him with his car, Trevor has also killed the boy’s mother emotionally. Trevor, we learn early on, is also saddened by the death of his own mother; he transfers his unconscious Oedipal feelings for her onto pretty Maria, for whom he has romantic feelings.

Trevor can never sleep, for there’s no rest for the wicked (derived from Isaiah 57:20-21). Trevor does murder sleep. He’s tried Christ, as he tells Stevie while in bed with her…but he clearly identifies more with the Antichrist.

The guilt of killing a child and evading responsibility is overwhelming for Trevor, so he must try to erase the crime from his mind by using the defence mechanism of repression. The problem with repression is that the anxiety-causing memory never goes away; instead, it reappears in consciousness, though in an unrecognizable form.

[This is why psychoanalysts use the word unconscious, rather than the somewhat fuzzy word subconscious. We’re not talking about burying pain deep down ‘underneath consciousness,’ where one may hope it will never reappear. No!…the pain gets repressed, then it bounces back into consciousness, yet we don’t know it’s there–it’s unconscious, not known.]

In Trevor’s case, we go beyond what isn’t known: he doesn’t want to know. This refusal to know is what Wilfred Bion called -K. This is also why Trevor grows increasingly isolated, since growing in K involves social interaction and linking through exchanges of projective identification. Instead of interacting with real people, Trevor socializes mainly with hallucinated people.

Trevor is experiencing an extreme version of what WRD Fairbairn called the “basic schizoid position.” This means that Trevor is engaging in splitting: instead of relating to objects (i.e., other people) in a normal way, seeing them as grey mixtures of good and bad, he sees them in black-and-white absolutes of all-good people and all-bad people.

His relationship with Stevie, up until his complete psychotic breakdown, is what Fairbairn, replacing Freud‘s ego, called the Central Ego (Trevor) as linked to the Ideal Object (Stevie); this object is ideal because relationships with real people are ideal, that is, psychologically healthy.

His relationship with hallucinated Maria is Fairbairn’s Libidinal Ego (Trevor) with the Exciting Object (Maria), replacing Freud’s id. Trevor’s relationship with hallucinated Ivan is Fairbairn’s rough equivalent of Freud’s superego, the Anti-libidinal Ego, or Internal Saboteur (Trevor) linked to the Rejecting Object (Ivan).

Ivan is Trevor’s projected bad conscience; Ivan rejects Trevor’s every attempt to forget running over and killing the boy; Ivan also rejects Trevor’s other projections, like his post-it notes, imagining someone other than himself is writing them. This is why Trevor comes to hate (and imagines himself killing) Ivan, and imagines Ivan wants to kill Nicholas, when it’s Trevor who’s killed the boy. In hating and feeling hostility to Ivan, Trevor is hating his projected self.

Maria, as the Exciting Object of Trevor’s Libidinal Ego, is a double of Stevie in more than that both women give him solace as his symbolic, empathic mirrors. He has romantic feelings for pretty Maria, just as he has sexual feelings for Stevie. Part of these feelings is in how Maria is not only a mother, but is a reminder, a transference, of his own mother. Recall the scene in his fantasy date with her, on Mother’s Day, in the amusement park, when he takes a photo of her and Nicholas in front of the merry-go-round. He pauses for a moment, addled by a memory of a photo taken of him as a boy (Nicholas’s age) with his mother in front of the same merry-go-round, about two decades before.

This transference from his mother onto Maria, especially in light of his fantasy date with her in her home, the two of them having some wine, suggests unconscious Oedipal feelings in Trevor, that universal narcissistic trauma. This connection becomes more evident when he looks at a large glass bowl on Maria’s coffee table in the fantasy; it’s actually in his apartment, having belonged to his mother when she was alive. It’s also a yonic symbol.

These unconscious Oedipal feelings, transferred onto the mother of the boy he’s killed in the hit-and-run, compound his guilt and pain to the point that he loses the courage to face up to what he’s done. Killing her boy is like harming his own beloved mama; and since her son has been killed, it feels as if Trevor has killed himself. Small wonder he’s self-harming: not sleeping leading to a rapid loss of weight, and even deliberately walking out onto a road to be hit by a car (driven, incidentally, by a mother with her child beside her).

Added to all of this is Trevor’s repeated endangering of others whenever he drives: running red lights and nearly colliding with other drivers (at the same intersection where the accident occurred that killed the boy), just to chase Ivan’s car, that of a man who doesn’t even exist! Also, he still lets himself be distracted by such things as his car cigarette lighter instead of keeping his eyes on the road. One would think that he’s learned his lesson since the accident a year before, but these continuous acts of carelessness are examples of the unconscious reenactment of trauma that Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, called “the compulsion to repeat.”

Prior to all of Trevor’s self-destructive acts, he showed off an overtly narcissistic persona, driving a 1969 red Pontiac Firebird, wearing stylish cowboy boots, sunglasses, and overconfidently allowing himself to be distracted by his cigarette lighter as he lights his cigarette, just before hitting the boy. Elsewhere, he is seen in a photo with his coworker, Reynolds, having proudly caught a huge fish.

This narcissistic False Self served him well until the accident. Now he, in his shame, must disavow and repress all these acts of ostentation, for it’s this cocky overconfidence that’s led to killing the boy and hurting the mother on whom he’s since transferred his narcissistic Oedipal feelings. That False Self has been his only defence against psychological fragmentation…and he’s now lost that defence.

This disavowing and repressing of narcissistic grandiosity and idealizing of the Oedipally-desired parent, as Heinz Kohut described in a diagram on page 185 of his book, The Analysis of the Self, is seen in Trevor’s denial that he’s in the fishing photo with Reynolds (that it’s grinning Ivan, rather than proud Trevor, in the photo), his denial that Ivan’s red sports car is really his (with the licence plate number reversed), and the delusion that Nicholas is still alive.

Kohut’s notion of the bipolar self is what he considered the basis of healthy psychological structure: the two poles are the grandiose self, as seen in healthy, cowboy-boot-wearing Trevor, and the idealized parental imago, as expressed in his memories of his mother, his internalized object of her in his mind. When one of the two poles is compromised, as in the case of Trevor’s mother dying, the other pole is emphasized in order to compensate, as we see in Trevor’s grandiosity, him as the cocky, stylish driver of the Firebird.

When both poles are compromised, however, there’s the danger of psychological disintegration, as when Trevor’s grandiosity is blown to pieces after hitting the boy. His only way to hang on is through his relationship with Stevie, his fantasy with hallucinated, guilt-easing Maria, and the projection of all his cockiness onto hallucinated Ivan.

When he imagines Stevie is part of the “plot” to persecute him (because he can’t accept that it’s him in the fishing photo, rather than his Ivan projection); then he finds no Maria working in the airport diner; then he learns that slitting the throat of a hallucination doesn’t kill it, he realizes he has no more illusions to hide behind.

The post-it note that says, “Who are you?” and the one with the hangman game are again projected onto an imagined outsider sneaking into Trevor’s apartment, instead of him simply admitting that he’s been writing them all himself. Stevie says that hit-and-run drivers should be hanged, reinforcing a guilt he keeps trying to deny. He keeps guessing wrong answers to the hangman game: TUCKER, MOTHER, MILLER,…until finally, he admits it’s KILLER–himself.

The hanged man in the game is a stick-man drawing, a mirror of emaciated Trevor (just as the stick-people of Maria and Nicholas in the Mother’s Day card are mirrors of his guilt, those whom he’s killed metaphorically and literally) in his unconscious wish to thin himself to death. His deliberate avoidance of the right answer, KILLER, is an example of Bion’s -K, the refusal to know the truth about himself. As a result of -K, he creates Ivan, a bizarre object, a hallucinated projection of himself.

Trevor’s slow but sure discovery of the truth (his going from -K to K), as horrifying as it is for him, is like Oedipus‘ gradual discovery of his patricide and incest with his mother, Iocaste (recall Nero’s rumoured incest with his mother, Agrippina the Younger, another link with Trevor’s Oedipal feelings), as contrasted with Tiresiaswish not to tell Oedipus the painful truth (this was Bion‘s elaboration–K–of the psychoanalytic truth of the Oedipus complex).

Emotionally shattered and physically scarred Trevor looks at himself in the mirror, seeing not only the reflection of his battered body (from having let himself be hit by the car outside the DMV), but also grinning Ivan. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which he’s alienated from himself, the awkward, fragmented real Trevor as contrasted with Ivan, who is no longer seen as an evil projection, or as the Rejecting Object of Trevor’s Anti-libidinal Ego, but as Trevor’s ideal-I, the cocky, carefree narcissist he wishes he could still be.

Free of any guilt, Ivan can compel Trevor to turn himself in to the cops. Ivan is thus both his ideal-I and his morally judging superego. Trevor now knows who he is; he also knows who he once was–the guilt-free, cocky, grinning man now projected onto Ivan. Trevor can no longer pretend he’s the good guy, and that everyone else–especially Ivan–is bad.

Ivan is the good double of the bad original–Trevor…the KILLER.

When Trevor has, at last, come to grips with what he has done, and accepts his guilt, he can finally sleep, as he does at the end of the film. Accepting his guilt comes from his finally being able to process his emotional experiences, taking the agitating elements from the outside world–what Bion called beta elements–and using alpha function (the processing of those emotional experiences) to turn the beta elements into alpha elements, or thoughts that can be used in dreams, waking thoughts, etc. Trevor’s hitherto inability and unwillingness to do this processing (-K) is what’s caused his psychosis. [Click here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.]

In his book, Learning From Experience, Bion explains: “If the patient cannot transform his emotional experience into alpha elements, he cannot dream. Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Freud showed that one of the functions of a dream is to preserve sleep. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream-thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. Hence the peculiar condition seen clinically when the psychotic patient behaves as if he were in precisely this state.” (Bion, page 7)

Hence, Trevor cannot sleep and dream, and he cannot wake up from the nightmare that is his psychosis. It is only when he sees his fantasies and projections for what they really are that he can finally sleep, and thus escape his waking nightmare.

2 thoughts on “Analysis of “The Machinist”

  1. So what you’re saying is, I should see this. At present my oldest daughter is in ICU.
    BUT I shall endeavor to watch watch this soon. I like to read your reviews. Panoramic, literal and detailed. I like the glimpses.

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