The Infernal Machine

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If your thriller features more twists and turns than a truck full of Fusilli barreling down a winding country road in the dead of night, then you’d better be sure that you don’t inadvertently fly off the path into the realms of the unbelievable. Few things are as frustrating in cinema as a well constructed nail biter that builds and builds on its intriguing mysteries only to slam dunk its ending into a scenario so exaggerated, you can’t help but slump back in your seat while sighing “oh fuck off” at the screen as a previously tightly wound story suddenly takes huge leaps of logic.
It’s an issue that befalls The Infernal Machine, a talkative but interesting dip into dusty, sun baked paranoia that spins an enticing web around an immensely twitchy Guy Pearce performance, but unfortunately loses focus when heading into the final stretch.

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Writer Bruce Cogburn has being nailing it while playing the reclusive writer type after his controversial first novel, The Infernal Machine, drove a young man to start sniping people from a clock tower back in the 1980’s. Curmudgeonly, unkempt and permanently sozzled with booze, Cogburn’s permanently antisocial demeanor is only heightened by the constant fact that he’s been getting letters mailed to him everyday by a fan and a hopeful author named William Dukent. Taking to greeting delivery men with a rifle as they pull up to his secluded, southern California retreat, this contact with the outside world drives the moody, wash up, fuck to nevertheless drive 14 miles to the nearest pay phone and berate Dukent’s answering machine everytime a new letter shows up.
However, Cogburn’s loneliness must be showing, because after a while the rambling threats and drunken insults soon evolve into a begrudging need and he eventually leaves a message asking the somewhat obsessive fan to meet.
However, after getting stood up, Cogburn already iffy state of mind gets an unhealthy paranoia boost by the fact that the details behind Mr Dukent noticeably fail to add up leading to the disturbing conclusion that this is something way more sinister than an obsessive fan.
Local police officer Laura Higgins, while eager to help, finds there’s not a hell of a lot to go on and soon Cogburn finds himself being led into a meeting with Dwight Tufford, the young man who fired those fateful bullets after reading his book who currently is residing in a supermax jail.
As Cogburn’s paranoia builds like a pressure cooker, leading his already prickly nature to devolve into full blown mania, he eventually finds himself a tiny worm on a sizable fucking hook when this conspiracy finally opens itself up to reveal its inner workings.

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So, as you may have gathered from my opening, The Infernal Machine starts as a genuinely fascinating mystery that sizzles under a dry, acrid sun and chokes in clouds of Californian dust that has the balls to give us a protagonist that’s as likable and comforting as sandy underwear during a fun run. In fact, in many ways, The Infernal Machine, despite being based on the story, The Hilly Earth Society, actually owes a lot to Brad Anderson’s vastly superior The Machinist as they both concern themselves with vastly damaged leads trying to pick their way through a dense mystery that directly link with a past that drove them to be the utter physical and social wrecks they are now. They’re also noticably familiar due to a startlingly transformative central performance that’s not only hypnotic, but manages to power the movie like a sweaty, alcoholic dynamo. So take a bow Guy Pearce, as he’s finally found his first leading role since Momento that allows him to fully embrace his obvious love of fueling his movie star looks into his talents as a character actor as he makes Bruce Cogburn – and his impressively watertight Northern English accent – a magnetic watch despite him being the human equivalent to discarded trash. Impatient, constantly drunk and apocalyptically insufferable, Pearce and writer/director nevertheless still manage to make Cogburn and his numerous inner demons an interesting lead to follow through this slow burning thriller. Flop sweating through the heat, inordinate amounts of booze and the fact that his already shitty life is on the verge of total collapse, Pearce is impossible not to watch as he fully inhabits his bedraggled character totally throughout his fraying sanity and various stages of inebriation as his terrible ego has him believe his work is capable of terrible things.

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In many ways, Pearce is the sole reason to keep watching as the plot goes from intriguing, to tense, to ridiculous in just under two hours and it’s a shame that The Infernal Machine couldn’t stay the course as steadily as Cogburn’s accent does as it puffs out its chest as it switches from a quiet, under the radar, teeth grinder to an overblown finale that goes a couple of rug pulls too far.
Shock discoveries of exactly how close to home “William Dukent” has been operating and a suspiciously easy, Hannibal Lector-esque meeting with Akex Pettyfer’s now-grown Dwight Tufford are measured enough as it drips yet more unease into the edgey happenings, but everything starts to overflow when the movie introduces comic book movie style masterminds into the mix in the final half hour which I’m assuming was aiming for the starkly unsettling shocks of Park Chan-wook, but instead falls into the realms of cartoonish super-villainly that’s as far fetched as a needlessly complicated masterplan from a Saw sequel.
Sure, having the antagonists suddenly feature the near precognitive plotting talents of a Christopher Nolan Batman villain may give the film a big finish and allows the director to play with some visual motifs concerning writers creating their own dramatic narative around themselves, but compared to the first half it’s not only wildly implausible, but feels a little lazy too.

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It’s not that The Infernal Machine is a bad movie – in fact its noticably descent for a first watch – but that third act manages to dissipates a lot of the hard work the movie puts into establishing such a distinctive tone. Still, while supporting players Alice Eve, Jeremy Davis and Pettyfer give solid support, they’re all still chess pieces for the script to move across the board as the movie rightfully puts Pearce’s stellar performance at the centre of this web of in increasingly silly intrigue. It certainly has enough memorably jarring moments to prove that the Infernal Machine is anything but (Cogburn’s discovery of what lurks within the abandoned gas station next to where he’s been making his calls is arch paranoia at its finest) but it certainly has a few cogs missing by the end.

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