Lucid and The Machinist: Prototypes of the Psychotraumatic Thriller?

Term Paper, 2007

22 Pages



1. Introduction

2. The Plots
2.1. Lucid
2.2. The Machinist

3. The characters
3.1. The character of Joel Rothman
3.2. The character of Trevor Reznik

4. The genre of the psychotraumatic thriller

5. Films and mental illness

6. Analysis
6.1. The Machinist as a prototypical psychotraumatic thriller?
6.2. Lucid as a prototypical psychotraumatic thriller?

7. Conclusion


Ehrenwörtliche Erklärung

The Machinistis one of those classic stories in which a man goes out on a quest to solve a troubling mystery that ultimately leads right back to himself.”[1]

Lucidtells the enticing tale of one man’s search for redemption in the eyes of his nine-year-old daughter, and in the minds of three psychotherapy patients.“[2]

1. Introduction

It is common ground that films offer a richness and an intensity that cannot be found in any other medium.[3]The unique combination of visual and acoustic elements; the working together of language, gesture, mimic and music; of images and sound, offer an impressive account of reality. Wedding explains: “With the best films, the viewer experiences a sort of dissociative state in which ordinary existence is temporarily suspended. No other art form pervades the consciousness of the individual experiencing it to the same extent and with such power.”[4]Of course one may argue that some literary works can have the same absorbing effect, still the medium film is undoubtedly a very powerful one when it comes to captivating people’s attention. Films “have become a pervasive and omnipresent part of our society with little conscious awareness of the profound influence the medium may be exerting”[5].

One extremely widespread and popular genre is the thriller and its subgenres. Ranging from spy, gangster and science-fiction films to horror films, splatters and stalkers, there is hardly any film that has not been labelled a thriller. A relatively new development within the thriller is the topic of mental illness and psychopathology. Two recent examples areThe Machinistby Brad Anderson andLucidby Sean Garrity. In both films, the directors concern themselves with trauma and its impact on the psyche of the respective protagonists.

In his book ‘The Suspense Thriller’, Derry outlines a new thriller subgenre: the psychotraumatic thriller. I shall like to discuss whetherLucidandThe Machinistmay or may not be subsumed under this label.

In the following, I will first outline the plots of the two films. Then I shall want to concentrate on the acute and post-traumatic stress disorder of the main protagonists. After that, I shall have a look at the thriller genre in general and at the posttraumatic thriller genre in particular. Touching briefly on the question why films are especially well suited to depict psychopathological films and what possibilities directors have to portray mental illness, I shall like to continue with Derry’s eight-part formula of the psychotraumatic thriller. As we will see, the preoccupation with trauma in a film is not enough for the film to be part of this category. Last, I like to finish with a discussion whetherThe MachinistandLucidmay be seen as representative films of the psychotraumatic thriller. I will come to the conclusion that – in contrast toLucidThe Machinistis a prototype of the above mentioned subgenre, for several reasons which I shall point out in due course.

2. The Plots

2.1. Lucid

Set in Winnipeg,Lucidtells the story of its main protagonist Joel Rothman, a 32-year-old psychologist, who is left by his wife Marissa after being caught in bed with another woman. He is plagued by insomnia, which affects not only his private, but also his professional life: Growing increasingly dizzy and unable to concentrate, he has difficulties in coping with his job, which is why his boss wants him suspended and to move back to Gimli. Joel's patients are contributing nothing to simplify his life: They are suffering from various extreme symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Chandra Mergulhao is a timid woman with low self-esteem, who is spending her time with nursing her comatose – non-existent – sister. Having diagnosed herself with post-traumatic stress disorder, she now forms theories that the entire city is shrinking and converging in a certain point. Sophie Winters is a suicidal drug addict, who – after several suicidal attempts have failed – has come to believe that she is immortal. Victor Koblinsky is violent and unpredictable in his actions and shows signs of extreme paranoia. Frustrated and angry after the breakdown of his family, he now believes in a government conspiracy against him led by a person named Dave Walker. As the therapy progresses, the three patients not only start to share their delusions, but also to believe that their hallucinations are real. They are haunted by so-called „repeaters", versions of themselves which appear everywhere. While his patients are getting worse, Joel fills his sleepless nights by drawing sheep on the wall, dedicating himself to help his patients by going through their files at night and repeatedly listening to his wife’s last message on his answering machine. Apart from his job, Joel is also challenged by his role as a single father. His nine-year-old daughter Jenny, whom he has been left alone with after the adulterous incident in Gimli, has not yet forgiven him. She avoids communicating with him and torments him with reproachful questions and looks. When told that they might need to return to Gimli, she becomes increasingly distressed and starts sleepwalking. Soon Joel finds himself losing his grip on reality, and the thin line between fact and imagination, alertness and dream begins to blur. The situation gets more complicated when Sophie wants to prove her immortality by jumping from her apartment, and it takes Joel’s promise of giving her drugs to prevent her death. Chandra feels attracted to Joel and appears in his apartment, however, confessing that he has made the same mistake before, he rejects her, thereby risking her newfound trust in him. Victor’s paranoia deteriorates as his obsessive thought of the government being behind him grows stronger. Pointing a gun at Joel, he threatens to kill him in case he shows himself uncooperative and does not persuade Dave Walker to blow the experiment off. When Joel refuses to release Sophie, Chandra and Victor in order to avoid a relocation to Gimli, he is suspended by his boss and not allowed to meet with his patients again. As a result, Sophie, Chandra and Victor grow more desperate and frustrated. Left on their own, they take matters into their own hands. They take a man hostage, whom they believe to be Dave Walker, and call Joel. Taking the sleepwalking Jenny with him, Joel tries to rescue the innocent man. He seems to have been successful, when Jenny somehow gets out of his locked car and starts sleepwalking. She runs into oncoming traffic and is hit by a car. Joel immediately takes her into hospital, where he is not allowed to see her because of her highly delicate condition and because he has no ID to identify him as her father. In the meantime, Sophie, Chandra and Victor devise a plan to free themselves from their hallucinations. Convinced that they must kill Joel to solve their personal traumas, they break into Joel’s house. To avoid being shot, Joel persuades them to give him a last chance to help them. Finally, the four return to Joel’s office building for a final therapy session, in which Joel wants to help them re-experience their traumas. Before entering the building, Sophie has a sudden flashback of an accident. In a climax, the truth is revealed. Sophie, Chandra and Victor are victims of a terrible accident caused by Joel himself. After his act of infidelity, Joel has chased after Mari and Jenny to reconcile. Fallen asleep behind his wheel, he has realized too late that Jenny has run in front of his car. In an act of total panic, he has pulled the wheel round hard, colliding with a black Jeep and driving into a bus stop. Sophie, Chandra and Victor are dead and only projections of his hypnoid mind. The film ends with Joel reaching consciousness again.

2.2. The Machinist

Taking place in an anonymous American city,The Machinistshows a few days in the life of Trevor Reznik, a machinist who has not been able to sleep for more than a year. Due to his insomnia, he has considerably lost weight to the point where he has become a walking skeleton. His alarming appearance and strange behaviour cause his co-workers to shy away from him. Trevor only finds peace in company of Stevie, a prostitute who has fallen in love with him, and with the waitress Maria , whom he is visiting regularly at the airport-café at night. One day, he meets Ivan, a brutal-looking man who claims to be a colleague, but whom he has never seen before. Distracted by Ivan, he later causes a terrible accident in which a man called Miller loses his left arm. When investigated, Trevor accuses Ivan, but this employee is unknown in the factory. Hence, Trevor’s paranoia increases. He now becomes obsessed with cleanliness, shrubbing floors with his toothbrush and washing his hands with lye. He is haunted by flashbacks and frightened by everyday objects. Mysterious post-it notes appearing on his refrigerator door with a hangman game nearly drive him insane. A near-accident at work causes him to believe in a conspiracy of his co-workers against him. Trevor loses control and attacks some colleagues, an outbreak for which he is finally suspended. Losing the capability of clear thought, he begins to suspect everyone, especially Ivan, into whom he runs more and more frequently. He nevertheless attempts to establish a relationship with Maria , meeting her and her son Nicholas in an amusement park. When Maria ’s ex-husband phones, Trevor and Nicholas go for a ride in a ghost train, in the course of which the boy suffers an epileptic seizure. Being convinced that Ivan is the solution to all his problems, he follows him – but without success. After several attempts to confront Ivan have failed, Trevor tries to trace him through his licence plate. When learning that the police is not allowed to release personal information unless a crime has been committed, he even throws himself in front of a car. He then reports and accuses Ivan of being the hit-and-run-driver. However, it turns out that the car in question is his own, having been reported as written off in an accident a year ago. As the policeman grows suspicious, Trevor escapes. Shortly afterward, he catches Ivan accompanied by Nicholas entering his apartment. Suspecting the worst, he follows Ivan and confronts him in the bathroom. A fight begins in which Trevor ultimately kills Ivan, then realizing that Nicholas is not in the apartment. After a cut, we see Trevor carrying Ivan’s corpse in a carpet to the sea. When trying to dispose himself of the dead body, the carpet unravels and is surprisingly empty: Ivan is standing next to Trevor and laughing. Trevor, suddenly home again, realises that Ivan is only a delusion of his mind. He and Ivan are the same person: the driver in a hit-and-run car accident a year ago in which Maria 's son Nicholas has been killed. Having pushed all memories about the accident into his subconscious mind, his body has reacted not only with insomnia and a drastic weight loss, but – more importantly – with hallucinations. Guilt has returned personified in Ivan, Maria and Nicholas, confronting Trevor with his responsibility for the boy’s death. In the end, Trevor turns himself in and finally falls asleep in his prison cell.

3. The characters

Both films are thematically preoccupied with trauma and concern themselves with the question of how people deal with traumatic events. As Caruth points out, the Greek word ‘trauma’, meaning ‘wound’, originally refers to “an injury inflicted on a body. In its later usage, […] the term trauma is understood as a wound inflicted not upon the body, but upon the mind.”[6]Normally, when we think of trauma, we think of a response of the psyche that occurs as a result of a traumatic event. In general, a trauma is defined as a coping response to “an unexpected or overwhelming violent event”[7]that cannot be fully grasped when it occurs but that usually returns later in repetitive phenomena such as flashbacks or nightmares.[8]Fischer specifies psychological traumas further:

Psychisches Trauma ist ein vitales Diskrepanzerlebnis zwischen bedrohlichen Situationsfaktoren und individuellen Bewältigungsmöglichkeiten, das mit Gefühlen von Hilflosigkeit und schutzloser Preisgabe einhergeht und so eine dauerhafte Erschütterung von Selbst- und Weltverständnis bewirkt.[9]

The person suffering a trauma is not able to integrate the ideas and emotions involved with in the event and usually feels completely helpless and abandoned. As a consequence, people often show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The post-traumatic stress disorder describes can overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often uncontrolled, repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena. […] (It) reflects the direct imposition on the mind of the unavoidable reality of horrific events, the taking over of the mind, psychically and neurobiologically, by an event that it cannot control.[10]

The post-traumatic stress disorder has several sub forms. One of them is the acute stress disorder, which is diagnosed when the symptoms appear within the first month of the trauma and which is very similar to the post-traumatic stress disorder. After this month, a post-traumatic stress disorder is diagnosed.[11]

3.1. The character of Joel Rothman

Joel Rothman is suffering from acute stress disorder. Acute stress disorder is an immediate response to a terrifying and threatening event. The reason for the acute stress disorder is biological: When Joel causes the accident, his brain over-reacts by discharging the sympathetic nervous system. This pathological condition is characterized by a flooding of intruding images.[12]

In his trance-like state of mind, he lives through a ‚journey of guilt’. In his unconsciousness, he seeks redemption for all his mistakes. He is aware of having failed as a husband, as a father and as a psychotherapist. By cheating on his wife, he has destroyed six lives: Sophie’s, Chandra’s and Victor’s, as well as his wife’s his daughter’s and finally his own. Thus, he imagines giving therapy to Sophie, Chandra and Victor as a means to help them. Since he has never met them before, he fills their characters with the last images he saw before losing his consciousness. Feeling utterly responsible for having killed three innocent people by falling asleep behind his wheel, he punishes himself by not sleeping at all. However, due to his self-inflicted insomnia, his methods as a psychotherapist are questionable and he always seems to make makes the wrong choices at the wrong time. Despite his honest attempts to be a good father and a competent doctor, he fails in both respects.

In a personal statement in which I asked him to comment on his role as Joel Rothman, Jonas Chernick characterized Joel

as a man who has made some terrible mistakes in his life, but who is given a chance to redeem himself through his group therapy patients and his daughter. These patients, all suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, pose increasingly difficult challenges to Joel, and he contemplates abandoning them - but something inside him pushes him forward and he perseveres. This force within in him may be rooted in some subconscious guilt, but Joel's essence is that of a "good person", with a sense of moral responsibility and an accountability for his actions - some of which are possibly unforgivable. In the end, it is this moral responsibility that guides Joel's actions, and causes him to make amends with his patients and his daughter.[13]

Nearly the whole story shown in the film is a projection of Joel’s hypnoid state of mind. He tries working through the traumatic event in a state of emergency: With his normal brain functions highly changed, a flood of instant photographs of the surroundings are imprinted into his brain. This intrusion of images is typical for peritraumatic situations.

Whereas inThe Machinist, the post-traumatic stress disorder must be seen as a result of guilt, the acute stress disorder has only biological reasons. It is not a real coming to terms with his guilt or getting over the traumatic event, but rather a kind of attempt to integrate the traumatic event in a time-lapse photography.

In contrast toThe Machinist, the viewer is left in the dark about the end. Though all metaphors point at the fact that Joel survives the accident, we do not know whether his wife will forgive him or whether he will learn from his mistake.

3.2. The character of Trevor Reznik

Whereas Joel seems rather normal, Trevor is clearly disturbed, both mentally and physically. Christian Bale, the actor playing Trevor, observes:

Trevor is imprisoned in his own mind. He's consumed with anxiety and lives with this intense fear that something awful is always just about to happen. He fears he's the butt of some great cosmic joke. It's a terrifying place to be but I think we all have been there to a certain degree. We all know just how powerful a combination sleep deprivation and suppressed emotion can be. It takes him to places that are terrifying and monstrous, but also incredibly revealing.[14]

Having killed a boy in a car accident, he has deployed several defence mechanisms to cope with his guilt. When we experience Trevor, over a year has past, and he shows several symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Eaten away by a devastating guilt, he suffers from chronic Insomnia, not having slept for over a year. He has lost his appetite to the point where he is highly anorexic. He is irritable, helpless, confused and exhibits a fragile mind. He has become obsessed with hand-washing, extreme cleanliness and weighing himself each morning. He hence shows symptoms of a obsessive compulsive disorder, which is characterized by obsessive thoughts in connection with related compulsions, with which the individual tries to neutralize his or her obsessions.[15]Additionally, he has grown paranoid to a pathological extent. Like all people who suffer from a paranoid personality disorder, Trevor is extremely suspicious and wary. He is convinced that others are plotting against him behind his back, which is why he scrutinizes the behaviours of all people around him thoroughly, looking for evidence of intent to harm.[16]The only two people he trusts are Maria and Stevie, but even the latter is finally target of his suspicion and violence.


[1]Brad Anderson. Interview. – 19.02.2007.

[2]Sean Garrity. Production notes. – 26.02.2007.

[3]See Wedding / Boyd / Niemiec (2005): p.2.

[4]Wedding / Boyd / Niemiec (2005): p.1.

[5]Wedding / Boyd / Niemiec (2005): p.1.

[6]Caruth (1996): p.3.

[7]Caruth (1996): p.91.

[8]See Caruth (1996): p.91.

[9]Fischer / Riedesser (1998): p.79.

[10]Caruth (1996): p.58.

[11]See Ehlers (1999): p.9.

[12]See Fischer / Riedesser (1998): p.92.

[13]Personal comment of Jonas Chernick in an email – 24.02.2007.

[14] – 22.02.2007.

[15]See Emmelkamp / van Oppen (2000): p.4 f.

[16]See Wedding / Byod / Niemiec (2005): p.59.

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Lucid and The Machinist: Prototypes of the Psychotraumatic Thriller?
University of Mannheim
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Lydia Gaukler (Author), 2007, Lucid and The Machinist: Prototypes of the Psychotraumatic Thriller?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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