Like most suburban Americans, my garage is full of stuff. Just … stuff. Yard tools. Boxes of old toys. Old child-rearing equipment we may or may not need for our next one. Poisons on a high shelf. Stuff. It’s overwhelming. The kind of thing I want to devote an entire day to addressing but never make the time. The shelf that drives me craziest, though, is the one full of plastic supermarket bags. It’s not that we don’t use those bags from time to time, but for the most part, the collection has remained static for two years — since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when we unloaded all our groceries in the garage in order to wipe each item down with Clorox wipes before bringing them into the house. We used to throw the clothing we wore to the store into the wash before showering, too. That pile of plastic bags is just a reminder of that weird time when makeshift cleaning rituals became as much a mental survival mechanism as an actual way to ward off the virus itself.
Machination runs about an hour, and the first 10 minutes depict Maria (Steffi Thake) returning home from work during the early days of the virus. She takes off her mask. Washes her feet. Washes her hands for an intense amount of time. Washes her clothing. Washes her body. Then she washes the items she touched while washing herself. “I’m not clean,” she says to the few people with whom she still has contact. As the days of isolation stretch on, Maria’s process becomes more extreme as the outside world moves on without her.
There’s no doubt that those who already experienced mental health issues suffered more during the pandemic and that their development of new anxieties exacerbated obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Machination uses a situation everyone lived in to dive deep into Maria’s preexisting traumas, which the pandemic has worsened. She has tragedy in her past that she was previously able to deal with, but trapped inside, all alone, with the specter of contagion haunting her every move? That’s a perfect recipe for a nervous breakdown.
Such things are the hallmark of independent horror cinema, and, for the most part, Machination works really well on that level. Breakdowns allow a natural blending of reality and dream-like imagery; there is great work here done with worms in particular. The mental breakdown also creates a straightforward story: Person loses themselves and subsequently either climbs out or descends too deep. It’s a structure that works. Directors Sarah Jayne and Ivan Malekin (the latter also the film’s writer) do a solid job following it with effective sound work and upsetting imagery.
What mostly sells the film, though, is Thake’s performance as Maria. It’s almost entirely a one-woman show, and she creates a character who is sympathetic and believable while also experiencing a largely internal emotional journey.
My only real complaint about Machination is that the ending feels a bit predictable for the genre, so much so that it feels like a copout. I admittedly have a fairly low tolerance for films that, like Machination, arrive at one of the most definitive conclusions for someone in mental anguish. It’s not like the subject is inherently untouchable, and it’s certainly tragic here. But at the same time, depicting a character’s struggle and finding resolution in an act that can’t be reversed rarely sits right with me. It feels like an easy way to end a narrative rather than one that opens up the film up for dissection or discussion beyond “If only someone had listened to them.” It feels somewhat insubstantial.
Still, Machination does a really great job depicting Maria’s descent into obsession at a time when most of the world was adapting to a strange new status quo. It’s one of the few films I’ve seen that embraces the mundane ritualistic element in such a dramatic fashion. Although the story delves into her unique situation, the filmmakers do a really good job blending horror with an era most people would rather forget than ever live through again. I should really clean my garage.