Christian Bale reportedly dropped over 60 pounds for his role in The Machinist, and he is absolutely frightening to look at, like one of those photos of concentration camp survivors shortly after liberation. But the physical look makes sense, since Bale's character, a machine worker named Trevor Reznik, claims he's had insomnia for over a year, and is bedeviled by a paranoid mindset and numerous weird hallucinations.

Reznik, who lives alone in a small apartment and spends his evening's reading such light fare as Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, seems to get along well enough with his co-workers at a medium-sized machine shop, but those relationships begin to deteriorate when a momentary distraction on his part causes an accident that results in a buddy's (Michael Ironside) arm being ripped to shreds.

Cause of the distraction is Ivan (John Sharian), a creepy, big-toothed fellow employee who seems to be shadowing Reznik for unknown reasons. Reznik is also getting bizarre Post-its stuck on his refrigerator door, and as his paranoia increases, begins to suspect that the hooker with the heart of gold whose bed he frequently shares (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is somehow in on the conspiracy.

The only light in this dark tale comes from Trevor's relationship with airport coffee-shop waitress Marie (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), whom Trevor flirts with and eventually takes on a date, with her young son, to an amusement park. But she, too, soon becomes an object of Reznik's diseased mind.

Or is it diseased? Director Brad Anderson builds up suspense quite brilliantly, using a deliberate pace that draws the viewer into Trevor's strange world. Shooting mostly in bleached-out colors, aided immensely by Roque Banos' Bernard Herrmann-esque score (love that theremin!), Anderson creates a freaky atmosphere that is overwhelmingly real. In the center of this, Bale gives an outstanding performance that relies as much on nuance-it's shattering how normal he seems at times-as it does his cadaverous looks.

There is a problem with this tight, carefully controlled little film, however: The payoff (no spoilers here) seems a letdown after what has gone before. The "resolution" of Reznik's problem makes sense, script-wise, but seems a bit mundane. Still, director Anderson exhibits a firm hand with some difficult material. The Machinist may be a little deflating at the end, but for most of its running time, it's one hell of an eerie ride.

-Lewis Beale