Jamie Foxx, Paul Giamatti, Leonardo DiCaprio: there weren't many surprises in this year's Best Actor nominees. If there were any justice in the world, however, Christian Bale's name would surely be among them. The British actor may not give the year's finest performance in The Machinist, but it's undoubtedly the most dedicated, the Batman-in-waiting losing 65lbs to play a man so haunted by guilt it's literally eating away at him.
With his concave stomach, translucent skin and visible skeleton, Bale looks like a Holocaust survivor just released from Auschwitz. The psychological impact of his appearance cannot be understated, not least because we know this is no special effect. And it makes us all the more fascinated by his character Trevor Reznik, a solitary figure with few friends who likes playing Hangman... with himself.
"Nobody ever died of insomnia," says Trevor, but it looks like he could be the first. And when a colleague (Michael Ironside) loses an arm in an accident he causes, he becomes even more alienated from his machine-shop co-workers. His only friends are tart-with-a-heart Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who provides both physical and mental tendering, and Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), a sympathetic airport waitress whose companionship seems to offer a hint of salvation.
Shot entirely in Spain, with Barcelona standing in for Anywhereville USA, Brad Anderson's thriller has elements of Lynch, Hitchcock and Kafka in its DNA. (Dostoyevsky too: it's surely no coincidence that Trevor reads The Idiot.) If anything, though, Roman Polanski's The Tenant is the biggest influence. Paranoia is the key to Anderson's bleak, creepy vision, a world in which nothing is what it seems and where Ivan's mysterious, flame-red car comes to symbolise Trevor's ever-increasing dread.
From Roque Baños's eerie, Bernard Hermann-esque score to desaturated colour photography by DoP Xavi Giménez that lends Trevor's world a cold, monochromatic menace, this is intelligent, ingenious filmmaking. And if the Twilight Zone-style ending is perhaps a mite unsatisfying after all that has gone before, the getting there takes some beating.
Anchored by a truly mesmerising performance from Bale, this is the stuff cult movies are made of. See it now and stay ahead of the crowd.