Movie Review: Session 9 and The Machinist

A Double Dose Of Brad Anderson Thrillers

November 21 2007 Categorized Under: Movie Reviews one Commented
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Session 9 (2001) Star RatingStar RatingStar Rating1/2 (out of 4)
Director: Brad Anderson
Starring: David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Stephen Gevedon, Josh Lucas, Brendan Sexton III

The Machinist (2004) Star RatingStar RatingStar Rating1/2 (out of 4)
Director: Brad Anderson
Starring: Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana S�nchez-Gij�n, John Sharian, Michael Ironside

Session 9
Screw you.. I’m going to Miami

“Life is always scarier than fiction” says director Brad Anderson, and I think this sentiment is what underlies his films Session 9 and The Machinist. These are horror films with genuinely interesting tableau, and they build tension not with supernatural occurrences but by generating dysphoria from the seemingly mundane – understanding that beneath the veneer of the common man lies monsters more terrible than any lakeside slasher. Anderson realizes that what can be imagined is scarier than what is shown; his films offer up environments with tragic histories that trigger immense paranoia and sometimes even worse – bring to the surface elements of the psyche we never knew we had, and would rather keep buried.

On both a literal and metaphoric level, Anderson’s characters and settings from Session 9 remind me a little bit of Charlie/Hotel Earle from Barton Fink and Jack Torrence/Overlook Hotel from The Shining. They’re all hard working blue-collar guys, in this case asbestos workers, and their new gig happens to be the abandoned Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts, just outside of Boston/Salem. Run by Gordy Fleming (Mullan), Hazmat Elimination Company consists of employees Phil (Caruso – still trying to make it in Hollywood, pre-CSI), Hank (Lucas), Mike (Gevedon), and Gordy’s nephew Jeff (Sexton). Every character bears a cross – Gordy’s stress comes from a new baby, problems with his wife, and the threat of bankruptcy. Phil’s girlfriend has been stolen by Hank, who is constantly on the lookout for an exit plan from a life in asbestos removal. Mike is a failed lawyer looking to get back into the game, and Jeff is the typical teen who happens to have extreme nyctophobia. The former insane asylum makes an amazing backdrop for the goings-on, it’s creepy in tone and in its bat-like structure, and it has a history involving lobotomy and the housing of patients committed for things like “mortified pride” as well as your classic MPD case, one of which Mike discovers among abandoned documents. Specifically, a case related to Mary Hobbes, whose secrets are revealed through the playing of a group of nine reel-to-reel tape recordings. As the week progresses (each new day thrown up in subtitles like in The Shining), each character shows signs of cracking under stress, and Hank’s disappearance starts a disintegration of trust that spells bad news for everyone in the end. The final nail in the coffin of the employees of Hazmat is driven by Mary’s alter-ego Simon, and in the movie’s chilling final reveal, we learn that it is Simon who is the real center of the piece, and it’s not for the reasons you think it is.

Session 9
Not enough Advil in the world…

What impressed me about Session 9 the first time I saw it was its dedication to building tension through atmosphere and character interactions/revelations. You’ll see none of the MTV style jump cuts, overuse of gore to substitute for suspense, and there’s no bad nu-metal to be heard anywhere. The dialogue is smart, and the film has something to say about how the American dream can become a nightmare for some (a tattered American flag decorates the proceedings as the Native American patterns decorate the Overlook), and how in the recesses of the mind there may be a breaking point where our demons can no longer be kept at bay. And damn, if lobotomies aren’t disturbing as hell.

The Machinist
Slim Fast really works

The theme of the trickiness of memory and a major character “waking up” from a fantasy permeates both Session 9 and Anderson’s follow-up The Machinist, which features blue-collar worker Trevor Reznik (yes, the name comes from Trent Reznor’s), played by Christian Bale, who lost 63 pounds for the role. Trevor is a 120 pound lathe operator with a severe case of insomnia. “I haven’t slept in a year” he tells his hooker girlfriend Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), but that’s just the beginning of his problems. When not buying coffee and pie from his favorite airport cafe waitress Marie (Aitana S�nchez-Gij�n) or constantly cleaning his bathroom with lye, he’s being harassed by his superiors who think he’s on drugs and taunted by creepy coworker Ivan (Sharian) who may or may not really exist. When coworker Miller (Michael Ironside, who can’t seem to hold on to his limbs in any of his roles) loses an arm in a machine press accident, Trevor begins to suspect the people in his professional and private life conspiring against him.

Again, Anderson extracts dread from the environment, this time a machine shop, and uses certain set pieces in the film as presages – the water tower, the Route 666 theme park ride, the various clocks stuck at 1:30. But the conflicts of The Machinist are more internal and focused on one character, not an ensemble piece like Session 9; also, it offers up a more interesting mystery to solve. Plot comparisons to Fight Club and Identity are unavoidable, but like Session 9, the final reveal of the piece is not what I expected. Anyone who blabs about the secret of Ivan is only scratching the surface – there are loftier issues at stake here. Guilt and memory are explored with fresh perspectives and dark secrets are outed. A lot of the movie’s themes regarding guilt resonated with me. But outside of that, the movie has a hypnotic quality, using a beautifully drab color palette and melancholic soundtrack reminiscent of old 50s horror (nice to hear the theremin!). Bale’s performance is amazing, and I liked how each subsequent scene fills in missing pieces of the puzzle, punctuated with the hangman game that appears on Trevor’s fridge . I liked writer Scott Kosar’s touches of Dostoevsky throughout the film (there’s a little bit of The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, and Crime and Punishment in there).

What’s appealing to me about these two films is that they feature people whose end journey leads not to supernatural territory but to their own psyches. I hear Anderson is now remaking The Crazies. How apropos.

- Bill Gordon

The Machinist
Probably better to eat out this evening…

One Response to “Movie Review: Session 9 and The Machinist”

  1. patrick says:

    the machinist was powerful, disturbing and yet enlightening at the same time

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