Source Code

It’s the new me

You can follow a little trail of breadcrumbs from here to the beginning of this blog, and you can stuff the stale pieces in a nice deep Tupperware tub labeled “Stuff R.H. hates about movies.”  A recent nitpick has been the lack of, shall we say, “completion,” in thriller films (and this includes every subgenre – suspense thriller, sci-fi thriller, crime thriller, covers of M.J.’s Thriller, whatever).  I think we finally have a winner.

Speaking of breadcrumb trails, Source Code, the newest film from Duncan Jones (the son of David Bowie), actually has a comprehensible one.  First off, in order to stay within the bounds of the film’s projected gravitas, make a mental note that this is a sci-fi thriller.  Next, pay close attention to everything happening in the immediate background if you can – a lot of the fun is in unwinding the mystery yourself.

The story follows Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a chopper pilot in the American military who awakens aboard a moving train and doesn’t recognize his own reflection.  Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) sits across from him, referring to him as “Sean” and acting as though they’ve known each other forever.  Eight minutes later, the train explodes, and Colter awakens again, this time in an ice-cold space-age capsule, and to the disembodied voice of Vera Farmiga.  He soon learns from Farmiga’s character, Goodwin, that he is part of a special government program (guess its name!) used to prevent future disasters based on clues from the past.  Colter has been a part of this program for two months (though he thinks he’s only been there a day), and his mission is to uncover the identity of the terrorist who bombed the train – he will do it by inhabiting the body of Sean Fentress, one of the regular commuters.  In a sobering revelation, Goodwin tells Colter the train’s passengers are all dead. He is not going “back in time” to change what happened, but finding out who bombed the train in order to prevent future attacks.

The film is atmospheric and engaging from the get-go.  As soon as Colter wakes up, we know something’s awry.  The tendency of the camera lens to linger on minor details suggests we should be paying attention to Colter’s surroundings: a woman spilling coffee on Colter’s shoe, a passenger opening a soda can, a guy in the back referring to the conductor as “grandpa,” and Christina’s exact words.  When Colter is pulled out, the audience engagement only intensifies.  In many sci-fi films, we have a similar setup, then when the sci-fi part begins, we’re fed techy nonsense til we choke.  Here, it ups the stakes.  The conditions of Colter’s “capsule” – a term which briefly confounds the program’s inventor and overseer, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) – worsen.  Water begins leaking on the floor, and the windows frost over.  Communication with Goodwin becomes difficult.  We’re with Colter here, and we want to know what’s going on, but even more so (for now, at least) we want him to get back in there and find the bomber.  The filmmakers deliberately avoid showing us what Goodwin sees on her computer screen, and Rutledge continually insists that there is no time to lose.

The film’s twists are satisfying and unsettling, and the plot retains urgency throughout.  Farmiga and Monaghan provide gentle surfaces for Gyllenhaal’s rough hero to play against, and Wright’s limping pseudo-mad-scientist is a delicious antagonist, even though he’s not exactly a “bad guy.”  That role goes to Derek Frost (Michael Arden), lesser-seen but of key importance, who replaces the tired, unfair “Muslim terrorist” stereotype with a character who provides disturbing reminders of Timothy McVeigh, particularly when explaining why the train is to be destroyed.

Really, though, the four main actors drive this entire film, each occupying essential driving forces – Farmiga, Monaghan, Wright and Arden are like four sides of a box keeping Gyllenhaal in.  Wright, who is often given very little to do in films, gets a lot of dialogue in this one, and he’s an actor whose voice is a pleasure in itself.  We never find out why the character of Rutledge walks with a crutch, though it doesn’t get enough focus to become a red herring.

The development of Christina hits a roadblock because we only get a glimpse at the final eight minutes of her life, and being dead, she can only exist when Colter is in the Source Code.  Michelle Monaghan plays innocent well, and is a comfortable presence throughout the film, but all things considered, Christina herself does very little aside from talking about men and reacting accordingly to each new thing Colter does within the Source Code.  “You’re the pretty girl; the distraction,” Colter says when he’s still convinced Source Code is a training simulation.  The audience, perhaps, should consider that statement in regards to the film itself.  Farmiga, on the other hand, plays a strong military woman (and a living one, no less) but also has little to do outside of dealing with man-influenced (manfluenced?) crises.  It’s worth noting, though, to a point, that the most pivotal decision in the film’s climax is left up to her.

Very little goes unexplained or left behind in the film, which is a refreshing departure from recent thrillers such as Unknown, where we tried to stay with Liam Neeson but were left in the dust ourselves.  Even when Colter uses one of his Source Code trips to learn of his own whereabouts and discovers he may actually be dead – hinted at when Goodwin states that the requirements for Source Code mission candidacy are “very narrow” – we’re still with him, in both worlds.  The “dead” Colter begins to wonder whether Source Code doesn’t actually create a whole new reality, since he has already realized train passengers can be saved and people outside the train scenario can be contacted (i.e. other “versions” of Rutledge and Goodwin, Colter’s father, etc).  The results of his leap of faith in the end – testing this theory at the expense of fully dying instead of remaining a tool for further Source Code projects – are an excellent, satisfying payoff for the stress this film puts us through.  Just try to tell yourself that Colter’s only reason for doing it wasn’t his inexplicable obsession with “saving” a perfectly normal woman he’s only known for a few minutes.

A few questions: why is Rutledge seen as villainous?  Yes, his methods are rather ruthless (a word spelled almost like his name, not-so-ironically), but he is truly attempting to save millions of lives.  Through his antagonism, we get the impression that the filmmakers, at least, think Source Code as a whole is a bad idea.  Is it unethical?  Certainly.  Taking mortally wounded soldiers (without permission) and preventing them from dying in order to endlessly fight terrorism in an alternate timeline.  Yeah, agreed there.  It just seems like, with some kind of modification, this sort of thing would be a good idea.  I like the implication, however, that Source Code is an “afterlife” option for chosen people.  Makes you wonder where we really are in this film, what Wright’s “I have an eternal plan for you” scientist represents, what Farmiga’s caressing, guiding voice is really saying.  The beauty of this film is that you can speculate while also being 100% sure of what happened in the story when you leave the theatre.

Source Code is well-acted, performed with straight faces and the utmost urgency, and doesn’t purposely lose us in its complexities (nor does it bore us with hard science; see Primer).  Is the film’s science preposterous?  Sure.  But it’s the Fiction part that keeps the film’s heart beating.

Source Code (2011); written by Ben Ripley; directed by Duncan Jones; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright.

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