THE INFERNAL MACHINE begins as a spare and tense film driven by Guy Pearce’s measured performance as tormented author Bruce Cogburn. Alas, not even Pearce’s fine work as Cogburn slowly unravels from years of guilt can make up for a script whose third act becomes cryptically obtuse, rather than dynamically charged, before it just goes off the rails entirely into a flight of hyperbolic fancy that leaves us gasping with confusion and irritation.
Cogburn has lived in self-imposed isolation for 25 years in the sere and unforgiving landscape of the American southwest. He was driven there in 1981 by the actions of a young man (Alex Pettyfer), who climbed a university tower in Knoxville, TN, and began shooting, killing 13 people and blaming his actions on Cogburn’s only book, also named “The Infernal Machine.” With no phone, no computer, and no fax, Cogburn lives with his guilt anonymously until letters show up in his post office box from William DuKent, a writer seeking an interview with him. Ninety letters and counting, that keep coming by special courier even after Cogburn cancels his post office box, coupled with the repeated 45-minute trips to the nearest phone booth in order to leave increasingly threatening phone messages for the writer demanding that the letters stop. DuKent’s persistence creates a not unjustified paranoia in Cogburn, who takes up drinking and adopts a German shepherd to augment his arsenal of firearms, albeit he chooses the least aggressive dog on offer to help protect him.
Pearce, as mentioned before, carries this film with that grizzled, thousand-mile stare as the security of Cogburn’s solitary confinement renders him all too vulnerable to his growing mental turmoil rife with sick fancies, as well as DuKent’s stalking, which may or may not have stopped being merely virtual. Alone on screen in the vast desert vista, or the confined space of his ramshackle house, he doesn’t need dialogue to convey in how the last vestiges of Cogburn’s stability are inexorably crumbling away. When he does speak, though, the strangled undertone has a powerful pathos.
THE INFERNAL MACHINE may ultimately lose his way, but the first part of his film does an admirable job making Cogburn’s perceptions as his paranoia and alcohol consumption grow take on the cast of an unreliable narrator subject to several interpretations. Yet, like a juggler who attempts to keep one too many balls in the air, it loses control of its narrative in a mad rush to get to a denouement that, while visually compelling, fails to be as dramatically compelling, or even coherent, as it needs to be.