3 stars (out of 4)

"The Machinist" is a moody psychological thriller with a stunning performance by Christian Bale at its core. Ultimately, it may draw more attention for Bale's preparation—he dropped 60 pounds to become a Holocaust-like skeleton with dazed, wounded eyes and a ghostly elegance in movement—than for the acting itself, which is brave and haunting, full of small, revelatory gestures that echo both the drawings of George Grosz and the wordless angst of Munch's "The Scream."

Forget "American Psycho." Forget "Empire of the Sun." This is the performance of Bale's life.

The movie, directed with grace and verve by "Session 9's" Brad Anderson, opens with Bale's Trevor Reznik already a soul in tatters, emaciated, his face purple with bruises and sores. In this way, as Anderson steps back to tell us the story, the shock of Reznik's appearance is not so much built up to as made inevitable.

Reznik exists in a nearly colorless world, filled with watery washes and shadows. Cinematographer Xavi Gimenez turns Barcelona into a spare, terrible Los Angeles. The color wheel spins into a warmer sepia only for a bit, when Reznik allows himself to relax and consider relief from his torment for a moment. Roque Bano's taut, eerie score reflects Reznik's inner demons as well as the world's dangers.

Reznik claims to have had insomnia for a year. We see his eyelids slowly dropping now and again, a sense of heavy fatigue and failure evident even as his body wastes away and becomes lighter and lighter until soon, everyone is warning him that he will disappear.

The once-healthly, possibly even athletic Reznik is a loner. His parents are dead, his friendships are flat and obligatory, based solely in a retail dynamic, whether with the waitress at the airport diner he likes to frequent, or with Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the kindly hooker who refers to him as "my best customer."

It may seem as if Leigh has played this part before, but there's something both world-weary and still genuinely hopeful about her Stevie that overrides most of the clichés. The scenes between her and Bale ache with pathos. These are two people who are barely breathing, trying to keep each other alive in a world they don't understand and which doesn't seem to know they exist.

It is no surprise that when Reznik inadvertently causes a coworker to lose an arm in a factory accident, the other crewmen turn against him, feeding his growing sense of paranoia and guilt.

What haunts Trevor Reznik? It's a violent, agonizing thing—and a familiar, quotidian possibility. What ultimately makes Anderson's film work right up to the end, is that the source of Reznik's mental deterioration—and we won't spoil it here—is so human.

'The Machinist'

Directed by Brad Anderson; written by Scott Kosar; photographed by Xavi Gimenez; edited by Luis de la Madrid; production designed by Alain Bainee; music by Roque Banos; produced by Julio Fernandez. A Paramount Classics and Filmax Entertainment release; opens Friday. Running time 1:42. MPAA rating: R (violence and disturbing images, sexuality and language).

Trevor Reznik - Christian Bale
Stevie - Jennifer Jason Leigh
Marie - Aitana Sanchez-Gijon
Ivan - John Sharian
Miller - Michael Ironside
Jackson - Larry Gilliard
Jones - Reg E. Cathey
Mrs. Shrike - Anna Massey