Directed by: Brad Anderson || Produced by: John Sloss, Dorothy Aufiero, David Collins, Michael Williams , Carlos Fernández , Neal Edelstein, Mike Macari, Paul Schiff 
Screenplay by: Brad Anderson, Stephen Gevedon , Scott Kosar , Alan B. McElroy  || Starring: David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Stephen Gevedon, Paul Guilfoyle, Josh Lucas, Brendan Sexton III , Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, John Sharian, Michael Ironside , Sam Worthington, Lily Rabe, Stephen Tobolowsky, Adjoa Andoh, Shane Dean, Lauren Cochrane 
Music by: Climax Golden Twins , Roque Baños , Anton Sanko  || Cinematography: Uta Briesewitz , Xavi Giménez , Björn Charpentier  || Edited by: Brad Anderson , Luis de la Madrid , Robert Mead  || Country: United States1-3, Spain2 || Language: English
Running Time: 100 minutes1, 3, 102 minutes  || 1 = Session 9, 2 = The Machinist, 3 = Fractured
Certain clichés screenwriters are taught never to use include starting a scene with characters waking up, usually from an alarm clock, and the infamous narrative revelation that a character’s experiences, if not the entire story, “was all a dream.” A risky screenwriting cousin of the latter trope is executing a significant portion of your story inside your character’s head, or having them hallucinate, imagine, or otherwise conjure certain phenomena into the story. This dynamic is an extreme version of the “unreliable narrator” who tries to fool an audience into believing a questionable version of events, which lends moral ambiguity and narrative mystery when done well.
Brad Anderson, a genre specialist experienced in thriller and horror films, has built a career atop seedy, morbid tales where characters destroy their lives and the lives of others because of how they warp reality inside their minds unbeknownst, at least at first, to the viewer. Session 9, a creepy horror flick set in an abandoned psychiatric hospital, The Machinist, a convoluted, anxiety-ridden drama about a blue-collar worker suffering from insomnia, and Fractured, a formulaic but intense thriller about patriarchal guilt gone awry, are textbook examples of cinematic psychological manipulation. In some ways, unreliable narrators dominated by malevolent delusions can be particularly effective in a visual storytelling medium like filmmaking, but the perceived “cheapness” of overtly lying to one’s audience for most or all of a movie’s running time can, in turn, dominate viewers’ reactions to a film if the psychological trauma of a movie’s protagonist feels unearned. Please note that spoilers for all three films follow…
Session 9 (henceforth, S9) feels the most conventional of the three given its horror genre and mild supernatural overtones. Guilt as a justification for extreme character actions or an overarching narrative theme is common in horror (e.g. The Ritual ), but S9’s use of guilt as motivation for the “secret antagonist” (Peter Mullan) within an ensemble cast feels memorable despite the film’s classical premise: S9 follows an asbestos abatement crew tasked with cleaning an abandoned insane asylum (the real-life Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts), which the film implies may or may not be haunted by vengeful spirits from the many tortured souls once housed there, depending on one’s interpretation of the story. This setup is alright, but it’s the ambiguity of the antagonist’s motivation to commit violence that sells the concept, along with Anderson’s choice of location and cinematographer Uta Briesewitz’s stylish visuals. Is Mullan possessed by angry spirits or did he just snap? A combination of the two?
The extent to which S9 channels Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is uncanny — a haunted building that is a character unto itself, a sinful, relatable antagonist who spirals into madness, minimal yet notable supernatural flourishes — so it’s regrettable how predictable S9’s conclusion is. Also undercutting much of the horror tension are how bland most of the ensemble cast are (I couldn’t tell you their various personalities or character traits if I tried, and this is a character-driven story), as well as silly things like Mullan “talking” to his murdered family on a broken cellphone.
Next in line is The Machinist, a psychological thriller best known for how emaciated its star, Christian Bale, become in order to portray a guilt-stricken insomniac who is unable to discern reality from hallucination. Bale’s physical transformation is indeed extraordinary; the 6’0″ (~183cm) tall actor reduced himself to a skeletal 120lbs (~54kg), which, along with his character’s anxious behavior, the film’s drab, depressed color palette, and several nightmarish sequences, do a great job of turning his lead’s inner turmoil into external visuals.
The problem with The Machinist, much like Fractured and unlike S9, is that without any sort of supernatural plot-devices or thematic ambiguity to explain our main character’s disconnect with reality, we must accept the plot’s fantastical hallucinations as solely the result of our protagonist’s mental breakdown. This means both The Machinist and Fractured require their viewers to suspend a high level of disbelief in order for their plots to work. As impressive as the external realizations of our characters’ mental states are (e.g. fever dreams, schizophrenic nightmares, manufactured memories, etc.), their believability is suspect at best.
Where Fractured has an advantage over the likes of The Machinist is in its more structured, self-contained narrative and limited timeframe. Fractured lacks the charismatic screen presence of Bale (lead Sam Worthington gives a career-best performance, but still can’t compare), yet is paced far better and builds to an action-packed conclusion while The Machinist and S9 peter out in their final scenes. To be brief, Fractured is about an Average Joe (Worthington) struggling with both alcoholism and a strained marriage who takes his family to a rural hospital after his daughter (Lucy Capri) has a minor accident at a highway rest stop. Worthington grows suspicious after the creepy hospital staff aggressively encourage them to sign up for organ donation, and after his wife (Lily Rabe) takes their daughter to the building’s lower levels for a routine checkup, they never return.
The final revelation isn’t as spectacular as the film thinks it is given how the audience knows the story can only unfold one of two ways. Still, Fractured’s escalation of tension and stuntwork are noteworthy, as are a couple minor revelations prior to the third act that maintain ambiguity until the final reveal.
All things considered, I enjoyed all three films and believe they are decent benchmarks for translating otherwise unwieldy internal character emotions to screen. Brad Anderson portrays material in Session 9, The Machinist, and Fractured that is not inherently cinematic with style and considerable tension, utilizing memorable cinematography and precise editing to maintain visual fluidity between character development and story progression. On the other hand, the fantastical nature of and required suspension of disbelief inherent to his films’ dependency on hallucination, dream sequences, and warped reality means these films won’t work for many people. Guilt as a central thematic concept works in many types of stories, and Anderson in particular is adept at executing those concepts to visual media, but the sheer incredulity of multiple characters’ bending reality inside their minds may push the “unreliable narrator” device too far.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Brad Anderson demonstrates how to transform character’s internal conflicts into external, unforgettable imagery using great location-photography, nightmarish surrealism, and an impressive control of narrative tension. His distinct portrayal of unreliable narration combined with ambiguous storytelling are great fun for fans of horror and thriller films.
— However… the high level of suspension of disbelief required to accept the narratives of Session 9, The Machinist, and Fractured is considerable. Interchangeable supporting characters in the former and controversial twists in the latter two make these films a hard sell for anyone who prefers a straightforward screenplay without gimmicks.
—> ON THE FENCE
? Adjoa Andoh: You’re not going to hurt us, Ray. || Sam Worthington: You think I killed my wife and daughter. Who are you to me?