The Infernal Machine Review: Guy Pearce Anchors A Twisty Thriller That Can't Quite Stick The Landing

For better and worse, there's more than meets the eye in "The Infernal Machine."

The ever-reliable Guy Pearce shines as the haunted Bruce Cogburn, a reclusive writer hiding out in Southern California over twenty years after first hitting the bestseller lists for his breakthrough novel, "The Infernal Machine." The traumatic reasons why he's shunned the world and never written a single follow-up to such an influential novel remain at the forefront of the story, thanks to the chilling cold open narration of a (seemingly unrelated) decades-old crime, and especially the disturbing deluge of letters sent to Cogburn from an obsessive fan. Pushed far enough to actually call up the mysterious William DuKent and leave a polite-but-firm message asking to be left alone, the script steadily turns the screws until the hidden danger of Cogburn's fixated and unseen admirer practically fills each frame.

Written and directed by Andrew Hunt and based on "The Hilly Earth Society" podcast by Louis Kornfeld, "The Infernal Machine" fires on all cylinders when it's fully in the mode of an unabashed melodrama. Cogburn's fragile and rapidly spiraling mental state allows Pearce to fully exploit his rugged, windburned, and increasingly fractured exterior. Meanwhile, the tightly wound script gives viewers a compelling puzzle box of sorts to suss out alongside the disheveled author — in the early going, at least. Once it comes time to make deeper observations about the blurred lines between creative and fan, inspiration and appropriation, and paranoia and guilt, Hunt trips over his own ambitions.

It's poor form to accuse a film of trying too hard and aiming its sights too high, but there's something to be said for one that recognizes its limits and avoids exceeding its own grasp. Ultimately, the tense thriller aims for the grandiose ... yet can't overcome the feeling that it'd be more at home simply embracing its humbler, pulpier, airport paperback charms.

A promising start, a messy end

Right from the start, "The Infernal Machine" paints a promising picture with its impressive grasp of atmosphere, mood, and tone. The dusty, washed-out greys and interiors drenched in shadows speak to the work of cinematographer Sara Deane, who mixes evocative close-ups (several clever shots and even the blocking within the aspect ratio repeatedly suggest the walls closing in around Bruce Cogburn) with constant reminders of the barren, empty wilderness that suffocates our lead. Director Andrew Hunt quickly establishes the familiar pattern of behavior that Cogburn falls into, finding new and inventive ways to stage his countless phone calls to the mysterious DuKent as his eroding sense of privacy and safety gives way to sniper rifle target practice, a new dog to give him advance warning of intruders, and ultimately culminating in a drunken meltdown that precedes the more unwieldy and sagging final act of the film.

The introduction of Alice Eve's peppy cop Laura Higgins temporarily livens up what could've felt like a strained one-man play, as does various flashbacks to Cogburn's years as a professor of creative writing. Yet even here, the writing tends to rely upon on-the-nose parallels ("Who am I?" he asks his students rhetorically, before launching into an impassioned speech about the "fundamental question" any story's protagonist must wrestle with by the end of their arc) that further connect with the former writer's haunted past, leading him to seek solitude in the middle of nowhere.

The story gets a perfectly-timed boost in energy when Cogburn's ill-advised attempt at making nice with his stalker leads to an escalation in stakes and threats, but the expanded scope of the central conflict can't quite redeem the script's worst instincts.

By the time the concluding act rolls around and Hunt finally starts unraveling the secrets at the core of the narrative (some excruciatingly obvious, others a little more out-of-left-field; all of which are too crucial to spoil here), it becomes worryingly clear that no ending could possibly live up to the potential built up to that point. For much of the film, Guy Pearce brilliantly enriches this melancholy, pulse-pounding, and genuinely unnerving morality play of an author whose one-hit wonder might not be all it seems to be. The final conclusion, unfortunately, undoes much of that goodwill in the pursuit of a shocking yet ill-conceived climax.

"The Infernal Machine" comes maddeningly close to striking a balance between its high-minded aims and more guilty-pleasure inclinations, but not even the fully dedicated lead can save this film from itself.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

"The Infernal Machine" will be available in select theaters and on digital September 23, 2022.