Dir: Brad Anderson. Spain/US. 2004. 98 mins.

The Machinist is a sinister and unsettling psychological thriller which has cult favourite written all over it. It's Donnie Darko meets Kafka, Repulsion meets Safe. Talented US film-maker Brad Anderson (Session 9, Happy Accidents) takes the Cold War paranoia re-invading US society under the Bush administration and pours it into this mesmerising puzzle of a movie which will irritate as many as it captivates.

Critics likewise will be divided as to the merits of the film which could be read as either powerful post-9/11 snapshot of national anxiety or aggravating shaggy dog story. Nor will the startling grotesquerie of Christian Bale's central performance be a slamdunk with press or public. Few who see this film will be ambivalent.

But as Lars Von Trier has proved, like-it-or-hate-it pictures generate a want-to-see mentality among specialised audiences. Bale, who is currently starring in the title role of a new $135m Warner Bros movie of Batman, goes to lengths to which actors probably shouldn't go and his performance will be a magnet for publicity, especially as the Batman heat starts to pick up. And like Donnie Darko did around the world three years ago, The Machinist will resonate with smart young audiences growing up in the new world of moral ambiguity and Orwellian undercurrents.

Specialised distributors will have to work to make the film pay, but its long term value is considerable.

Bale lost so much weight to play the harrowed machinist that his extreme physical appearance is hard to stomach. Evoking pictures of starving children in Africa or Holocaust survivors at the end of World War II, his hunched, emaciated torso is frequently seen shirtless and audiences will be more alarmed by the actor's uncompromising perfectionism than the character's dilemma.

He anchors the film with his extraordinary work as Trevor Reznik, a machinist in a factory who has not slept in a year. Plagued by his condition and losing weight every week, Trevor finds his only solace in his regular visits to a prostitute Stevie (Leigh) and his night-time visits to an airport cafe where he is served pie he never eats from his favourite waitress Marie (Sanchez-Gijon).

However, this status quo is unbalanced when Trevor meets a new co-worker at the factory called Ivan (Sharian) who distracts him one day and leads him to cause an accident in which another worker (Ironside) loses his arm. Even worse, nobody at the factory thinks Ivan exists and believe that Trevor is going crazy.

Cryptic notes start appearing in his apartment which lead him to suspect both Stevie and Marie in the conspiracy against him, and finally push him to conclusions which both illuminate the situation and terrify him.

Although ostensibly set in the US, The Machinist was shot in Spain and it has a European flavour to it which further enhances the non-specific Kafka-esque world of Anderson's vision. The lighting is suitably moody, casting eerie shadow into the crooked crevices of Bale's haunted face. The wonderful, Herrman-esque score by Roque Banos helps to heighten the mystery immeasurably.

Prod co: Filmax Entertainment, Castelao Productions
Worldwide sales:
Filmax International/(34) 933 368 555
Exec prods:
Carlos Fernandez, Antonia Nava
Julio Fernandez
Scott Alan Kosar
Xavi Gimenez
Prod des:
Alain Bainee
Luis de la Madrid
Roque Banos
Main cast:
Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, John Sharian, Michael Ironside, Anna Massey