Guilt and Rest

By Tim Winterstein

If Hitchcock remade Fight Club, it would probably look a lot like The Machinist (2004). If you haven’t seen it, but you’ve seen Fight Club, then I probably gave away the major plot twist. But even if you know the major twist, this is a devastating film about the destructive power of buried guilt. I had seen The Machinist before, but I honestly didn’t remember much except that he works in a machine shop and is struggling with something. I probably watched it on a VHS rented from a Blockbuster (RIP) in Washougal, Washington during a summer when I worked the night shift at a Safeway and then in a hot, dusty, stifling concrete plant in Portland. Not much else to do during my first summer not returning home from college.

I remember liking it, but before I watched it again, I couldn’t have told you why. I certainly understood less theology and less about movies in 2004. I doubt I would have caught nearly as many of the images and repeated hints at a possible redemption throughout the film. But redemption from what? That’s the central question. Obviously, Trevor is responsible for Miller’s accident, but that doesn’t seem to affect him in his sleep-deprived state. (“I haven’t slept in a year.” But “no one ever died from insomnia.” “Jesus Christ!” Stevie says. “Yep, I tried Him too.”) In fact, his attempts to apologize to Miller are merely superficial, and he ends up with a right to the gut for his false charges—just as he gets slapped by Stevie later for falsely accusing her.

But as he gets deeper and deeper in his own delusional attempts to figure out why (he thinks) everyone is against him, every firm connection to reality starts to slip. Can he face the truth before his search kills him?

The answer, theologically, is no. He is divided and doesn’t know it. The one responsible, the conspiracist, the killer, is someone else. It must be Ivan, who is clearly a bad man—devil-like, even. Two different colored eyes, a demon’s horns for a mutilated hand, scarred, dressed in black. Why is he chasing Trevor? What has Trevor done to deserve this?

Even when Trevor kills him, he returns: haunting, driving, pushing, mocking. Who are you? is the question on the note stuck to his wall. And finally: “I know who you are. I know who you are. I know who you are.”

But he doesn’t get to that knowledge by himself. He is driven to it, involuntarily, by the mounting guilt that refuses to stay buried in his sub-conscious. At least a year has passed, and 60 pounds along with it (which Christian Bale really lost. More fascinating trivia here). And now he begins to be terrified, as Luther put it, by every dry leaf blown around by the wind.

The double-ness of everything begins with what Trevor calls déjà vu, as the waitress says to him exactly what Stevie, the prostitute—makes sense that his only friend is one he has to pay for her company—says, “Are you okay?” “Don’t I look okay?” “If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.”

And there are continually two paths apparently open to him, but he only ever takes the left one, even though in the haunted ride he wants to take the other. “Sinister” is the word for Trevor’s environment, which is also from the Latin for “left.” So Trevor might want to go to the right (the “Path to Salvation” in the ride; the tunnel filled with light in the sewer), but he continually—in spite of himself—chooses to go to the left: “The Highway to Hell,” the darkness.

“You’re going to hell on Route 666!” the loudspeaker outside the carnival ride keeps saying. And there’s nothing fun about the ride, or the route Trevor’s traveling. “This is a heck of a ride,” Trevor says to Nicholas, with just the tiniest hesitation in his voice. He continues to fool himself that he is a good guy who can’t figure out what’s wrong with himself.

Isn’t this our default position? To assume that while we may have made mistakes, we are not really at fault, not really? It was an accident. It was unintentional. I’m a good person deep down! But that doesn’t let Trevor rest. He is continually being awakened just as he begins to close his eyes. No rest for the wicked indeed.

He is Psalm 32:3-4 incarnate: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”

Finally, trying to erase another crime, he is brought face to face with his real self in a mirror (and people think theology is irrelevant!). “I know who you are.” Then, and only then, can his torture end as he ceases his flight from the darkness of his heart by refusing to turn left(!) to the airport, and instead turns right to downtown and the police station. “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).

“I just want to sleep,” he says in his “Justice Brothers” t-shirt (which, perhaps, reflects again his double-ness). “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:1-2). “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).

While the film doesn’t quite get to absolution (this not being a Lutheran film), it goes nearly all the way: Guilt will destroy you, body and soul. Confession is good for the soul. Absolution is even better.