The Infernal Machine was directed and written by Andrew Hunt (Miles Between Us, Frost Bite), who adapts from a short story by “The Truth” podcast, and stars Guy Pearce (Neighbours, The Seventh Day), Alex Pettyfer (Elvis & Nixon, Beastly), Alice Eve (Bombshell, Crossing Over), and Jeremy Davies (Secretary, Justified). It’s about a reclusive ex-author who finds his privacy being violated and seeks to find out why it’s happening and the identity of the person(s) doing it.
The Plot: So many stories about writers and tragedies have reared their way into cinema that it’s evidently become a tall order to create a new one. Hunt doesn’t have anything particularly inventive as far as the plot goes, but he gets unexpected mileage out of a mashup of concepts.
Provocative media is nothing new, but very few people internalize it so much that it makes a senseless shooting seem like a good idea. For author Bruce (Pearce), this isn’t the case, as the release of his first novel many years ago inspired Dwight (Pettyfer) to kill 13 people from a clock tower. None of that requires visualization from Hunt, and he wisely lets a news report set the scene. Even though he now lives in the middle of nowhere and hasn’t written since the shooting, Bruce is starting to get letters from someone calling themselves William DuKent.
Packages and more letters soon begin to arrive at Bruce’s doorstep, so many packages and letters in fact, that the movie has to address what’s written on the page. This happens so late though, that it feels like an afterthought despite being a crucial point of the plot. In the meantime, officer Higgins (Eve) ends up joining the author’s investigation once he figures out that whoever’s been sending the stuff hasn’t been going about it in a normal fashion.
Describing it this way makes it seem like The Infernal Machine plays out in short order, but it doesn’t have enough material for that, instead relying on heavy-handed flashbacks to the time when he was in his prime, speaking to people like Elijah (Davies) about writing.
The promise is palpable for The Infernal Machine’s first 25 minutes, but the script is too loose and eventually too silly and unintelligible to truly deliver more than intermittent enjoyability.
The Characters: Basically a solo show, The Infernal Machine is superb at delving into the behaviors and trauma of its main character, which is the most important piece of the character puzzle, but the other parts are less specific.
Bruce used to have passion and drive for his craft, meeting with students and onlookers about fulfilling a reader’s requests and doing press for his first release. All of that zeal went right out the window when his book, the titularly named “Infernal Machine” was cited as an influence for violence. Now, he’s a shut-in that smokes and drinks whenever he’s not sleeping his days away. Anyone that dares interrupt this simple lifestyle is threatened with a shot from his sniper rifle, but this is revealed to be more of a defensive process for the man than his true personality.
Higgins starts to puncture Bruce’s persona with her peppy attitude and excitement at meeting an author of his caliber and… we’ll call it “influence.” Her involvement in the mystery at hand becomes an understandable stressor for her, but she’s really present to do what Bruce requires of the law in this case, and little else.
Dwight is oblique in the right ways for the first half of the feature as he makes borderline incomprehensible justifications for his actions making him a believable presence in this world. It’s after Hunt provides a direct visit with the man which spells out some key details that the path becomes clear and the shooter comes off more as a pawn than a rook.
Our fracturing author is the center of The Infernal Machine though, and the movie delivers a modestly compelling instance of this stalwart archetype, although I doubt it would’ve been as successful if not for a wonderful performance by Pearce.
The Mystery: Hunt strived to include a twofold speculative piece with his movie, and on the first hand he’s able to work something engaging out of familiar scenarios and questions, but once he tries to elevate the already effective movie to another plane, The Infernal Machine becomes a weird splicing of two very different cases.
Delivering manic energy comes easy for the movie, with a gradual ascent from a couple of letters and mild annoyance to a swinging series of rants and confusion stemming from Bruce’s guilt. Frequently finding himself in a phone booth talking to DuKent’s answering machine about what he thinks the faceless fanatic wants to receive, Bruce asks his own questions about where the sender is and what he wants but hears nothing. It’s odd yet fully investing, reaching a sharp drop-off point that allows the recluse to relax for a very brief period before a more direct approach from DuKent reignites his rage.
Once the movie answers the question of “who?” and moves on to “why?” as the central question, it threatens to fall apart. It never does, not as a whole, but the compelling breakdown of a recluse’s sanity is fully spelled out well before it should’ve been. The oddity is retained despite this, with the inclusion of Cold War-esque number sequence broadcasts and Bruce’s questions of authority, but it feels significantly less organic than what came before.
When adapting directly from the podcast segment, the mystery element moves at full, albeit familiar, force. Questions remain compelling, but the escalation is disappointingly clear yet never a match.
The Technics: Perhaps making short films drives a director to flex their arms and show off when they get the chance to make a feature-length film. That’s the impression anyway since Hunt makes a technically sound offering with attention paid to detail across the board.
Maybe this is too much of an opportunity since The Infernal Machine runs ragged with extended shots and overlong outbursts of frustration. At almost two hours of movie, a lot of cutting was in order. Editing the feature was nested in the hands of Jeremy Wanek (Death Count, Dark Cloud), who does a good job of putting scenes together, but lacks a tautness that a movie with little new to add should possess. Sound editing and design, though, are great. Grasping a definitive mood with arid locations and sparse musical cues makes the few scenes of scored panic stick out a little more.
Rounding out the most important bits, the camerawork by Sara Deane (Anna and the Apocalypse, Soulmate) is solid in effectively selling The Infernal Machine’s atmosphere. Plenty of wide-open shots of Bruce’s desert-set house with hardly anything in the surrounding area show both a level of supposed safety in isolation and the insecurities that can present. It’s a double-edged sword that pierces as it should. The tone is steady for two-thirds of the runtime, but as the story gets less defined, so too does the intention.
A very good first half holds up The Infernal Machine until its thinly stretched premise reaches an overdue conclusion, as does the reliable Guy Pearce. It works just as many times as it doesn’t, but his performance elevates the movie beyond average.
The Infernal Machine is available on Digital and VOD platforms from Paramount Pictures. And if you want more of the same, FilmTagger has a few viewing suggestions.