The Machinist Ending Explained: Christian Bale Falls Apart

When Brad Anderson's 2004 film "The Machinist" focuses on its protagonist, Trevor Reznick (Christian Bale), we sense the man's damage and repression. His skeletal frame and wild expressions hide something, something that haunts him, and we don't know what just yet. When he claims to have not slept for a year, we believe it.

As one of /Film's best thrillers ever made, "The Machinist" is a study of identity, guilt, and insomniac paranoia, anchored by a Christian Bale performance that revealed to viewers the extent of the actor's dedication — even to the most unsavory roles. According to GQ, the transformation and rapid weight loss Bale undertook for the movie, on a diet of black coffee and bourbon, led to him dropping 55 pounds.

The movie opens with a scene of Trevor, bruised and battered, dropping a rolled-up corpse into the sea. It rewinds from there, revealing what led to this simple factory worker's descent into madness. Objects like cigarette lighters and sticky notes begin to take on a menacing quality, as Trevor's sleeplessness turns him into a liability at his job and in his life.

Trevor moves through his days in a dream state. Despite his fairly regular routine, from his job, to his late-night diner meals, to his relationship with kindly sex worker Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), his world feels unmoored from reality. Thanks to the highly desaturated photography of Xavi Giménez, even "normal" scenes of Trevor in broad daylight feel hallucinatory and creepy.

The sleepless life

Like "Shutter Island" and other psychological thrillers, it's just as hard for the audience to make out what's really going on as it is for its protagonist.

He feels paranoid about how his co-workers look at him, and grimaces at their ball-busting. The only one who seems to know what he's feeling is new arrival Ivan (John Sharian), who spots Trevor smoking outside and strikes up a conversation. He laughs loudly, he's gregarious and unhinged, a far cry from the misery of Trevor.  He keeps drawing Trevor's gaze during standard operations, and, distracted, Trevor accidentally cuts off his co-worker Miller's (Michael Ironside) arm. He can't even blame Ivan for it — his bosses have no idea who that is. 

Rather than drag out the reveal of Ivan's identity, the movie gives you the truth immediately. The drama comes from whether or not Trevor will be able to accept it.

Trevor alternates this nightmarish life with attempts at something normal. Awaiting investigation from the higher-ups regarding Miller's accident, Trevor goes on a Mother's Day outing with Maria (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), the waitress at his favorite diner, and her son, Nicholas (Matthew Romero), who has a seizure when Trevor takes him on a bizarrely menacing ride called Route 666. The kid ends up okay, but the episode continues to underline how much danger continues to surround Trevor, or at least the people in his orbit.

The unraveling

Trevor finds new sticky notes in his apartment, presumably written by Ivan, with the "hangman" game drawn onto them. Four blank letters, and then an "E-R," which leads Trevor to numerous conclusions: "Miller?" "Mother?" He continues to try to prove Ivan's existence, first in a picture of him fishing with a co-worker, then by following his red Pontiac Firebird all throughout the city, but he's unsuccessful. After some digging, Trevor learns the Firebird was in his name.

Christian Bale says that he's done dramatically losing weight for roles, but it's hard to deny the impact his transformation had on "The Machinist."  Bale's approach to the character is sometimes distracting. The movie's emphasis on things that have been done to his body and its frightening outward appearance sacrifices the character's inner life and turns the experience shallow. But it can also be rewarding, in moments such as Trevor's arrival at Stevie's apartment following his chase of Ivan. When he collapses in her arms, it's the purest expression of just how much he's unraveled.

Spotting the picture of Ivan fishing on Stevie's nightstand, Trevor becomes convinced that Ivan is her ex (her "psycho" ex), and that she is just another part of the conspiracy against him. He confronts her, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, trying to get her to reveal the truth. But she keeps claiming that Ivan isn't in the picture — it's just Trevor.

I know who you are

In the midst of the fight, Trevor leaves, escaping to his familiar diner, but Maria isn't there either. In fact, according to the waitress working that night, Maria's never been there and Trevor's never said a word to anybody.

On his way out, Trevor sees the Firebird again, and this time Ivan has a passenger: Maria's son, Nicholas. As the two finally confront each other in Trevor's apartment, Ivan notes that Trevor should work on his memory, and Trevor kills him. But Nicholas is nowhere to be seen. Trevor moves to get rid of the corpse, leading us back to the movie's opening scene. And then Trevor understands.

Repeating, "I know who you are," Trevor remembers: the car was his. He ran over Maria's son, a year ago, and drove far away — the image of her crying over her child's dead body stuck with him, so he imagined her as a waitress and love interest. The guilt destroyed him, making him incapable of sleep. Ivan was an imaginary scapegoat.

Trevor reports the hit-and-run to the police, and is finally able to get some sleep. While the movie's resolution is a little schematic, those final moments and their suggestion of inner peace are genuinely moving, especially in light of Trevor's owning up to his crime. "The Machinist" is one of the best Christian Bale movies, with his tour-de-force performance and stunning transformation.