Well, the best reason to see The Machinist is also the best reason not to see it. That would be the spectacle of Christian Bale setting a new standard for actorly self-abasement. To get into his character of a haunted, anorexic insomniac, Bale lost over 60 pounds–perhaps a third of his body weight. Naturally, he looks like a skeleton, and Bale flaunts his transformation early on by flexing his ribs–all 24 of them–before his hooker sweetheart. But at least the ribs are shown at a distance; in a closeup of his upper back, I counted about six vertebrae. There’s no denying the power of a radical physical transformation to get our attention. It’s certainly got potential as a career move for an actor (Charlize Theron has an Oscar on her mantle to prove it). Still, watching Bale in this film is nearly unbearable, like watching a high wire tightrope act in a hurricane, for he looks as if he’ll break at any moment. It’s unfortunate that the film isn’t good enough to warrant such physical punishment. Still, watching Bale in extremis gives the movie verisimilitude and gravitas that it otherwise largely lacks.

Bale is Trevor Reznik, a guy who works in a dismal and dangerous machine tooling company and spends his off-hours scrubbing his bathroom clean with bleach, measuring his progress in annihilating his own body and enjoying the company of two different women. The first is Stevie, a sweet, sentimental and generous prostitute (is there any other kind in the movies?) who’s played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in a manner that recalls Elisabeth Shue’s nice hooker in Leaving Las Vegas as well as other Jennifer Jason Leigh roles. When Trevor’s not enjoying her favors, he visits Marie, the most beautiful third-shift airport waitress in the Western hemisphere, for coffee and pie. Marie, played by Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijn, is strangely interested in her scowling, lonely customer who leaves her huge tips and always seems to show up around 1:30 a.m.

Story-wise, The Machinist is a film firmly in Memento territory. The plot isn’t quite as ingenious or involving as the tricked-up Memento, but Bale–what’s left of him–is a much better actor than Guy Pearce and for an hour or so, that’s good enough. It seems that Trevor hasn’t slept in a year, and one day, the OSHA warnings against operating dangerous machinery in a sleep-deprived state are borne out when Trevor, helping a co-worker fix some uncooperative equipment, is distracted by a new employee at a crucial moment. The error costs a worker an arm. Later, when company investigators ask for information about the accident, Trevor mentions the employee who diverted his attention. Baffled, the managers inform him that there’s no such worker. From this point on, Trevor’s in a world of hurt and The Machinist pulls out all the stops in the paranoid thriller genre: deja vu, doppelgangers, amnesia, it’s all here.

The script is by Scott Kosar, whose other credits include last year’s remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and next year’s remake of The Amityville Horror. The Machinist is something of a remake, too, but this time Kosar’s going through his old classic European novels for inspiration. Trevor is shown in one early scene reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, and Kafka’s The Castle can be seen in another scene. (Otherwise, Trevor doesn’t read much.) In tune with the fancy book references, Kosar, director Brad Anderson and Bale have crafted a persecuted urban anti-hero in the fashion of Gregor Samsa or Dostoevsky’s underground man.

True to its 19th-century roots, this story has a doppelganger. Trevor’s existential stalker is named Ivan (a no doubt deliberate Slavic name choice), a beefy bald goon who looks like Brando’s Col. Kurtz. As Ivan, John Sharian makes a scary enough impression–until he opens his mouth, that is. His broad, sniggering performance disrupts whatever good karma this movie has and sends it straight to B-movie land.

The biggest problem with the film, however, is that it has a solution. Instead of exploring the fractured psyche of a disturbed machinist, the film turns out to be quite conventional in its gradual fitting of pieces together so everything makes sense at the end. On the other hand, what distinguishes the classic urban loners of Eastern European fiction, and of more recent dramas of paranoid outsiders such as Taxi Driver, is that their feelings of persecution are unconnected to any crimes they may have committed. Their feelings are irrational–like the reflexive feelings of guilt and shame one might experience under the casual scowl of a cop.

In the fiction that The Machinist references, self-annihilation is the end result. But in The Machinist, there turns out to be a key to the puzzle, a key that makes sense of the entire story and gives us a tidy, reassuringly moral ending. The only self-annihilation is the one that Christian Bale attempts in the service of this all-too-conventional movie.