The Infernal Machine review – Guy Pearce’s reclusive novelist dials up the paranoia

This atmospheric thriller stars the always compelling Guy Pearce as recluse Bruce Cogburn, a gruff novelist living alone with only his north of England accent for company. (The accent has no relevance to or effect on the story, but Pearce has cultivated it so lovingly for the film it practically feels like a supporting character.) Cogburn lives alone because back in the 1980s, he wrote a novel called The Infernal Machine, a fable-like story about a priest who meets God. Somehow, Cogburn’s book inspired a young man named Dwight Tufford (played by Alex Pettyfer), who he’d never met, to climb a clock tower and kill people with a rifle, like mass murderer Charles Whitman back in 1966.

Now, in the film’s present 25 years later (which would place the action some time in the early 00s), Cogburn starts receiving handwritten letters from someone called William DuKent. DuKent is also an author who seemingly wants to write a book about The Infernal Machine, Tufford and Cogburn, and asks the latter for his cooperation. At first, via messages left on an answering machine that form entertaining mini-monologues for Pearce to play the character in various states of sobriety, Cogburn politely refuses, and then grows more insistent that DuKent should leave off. But DuKent’s efforts to reach Cogburn become more elaborate and aggressive, prompting Cogburn to start becoming actively paranoid as the situation grows increasingly strange.

What starts out looking like a low-energy psychological mystery gradually starts building up a forceful head of steam and powers its way into loopy, metaphysical territory by the end. That said, what is steam but hot air, and there is something wafty and vacuous about the final concept. Nevertheless, Pearce stays true to form with a performance far more impressive, nuanced and crafted than the film perhaps deserves.

• The Infernal Machine is released on 2 December in cinemas.