Friday, April 1, 2011

Source Code
Outsourcing Cognition In A Machinery of Antiterrorism

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan in Duncan Jones's sci-fi thriller "Source Code". 

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Friday, April 1, 2011

"Source Code" -- spellbinding, even irritating in its redundancy -- is still one of the year's finest films.  An intense, original and brutish sci-fi thriller, Duncan Jones's clever drama always keeps you thinking, engaged, and on edge.  Crafted with snappy one-liners "Source Code" combines "Groundhog Day" with sharp 1980s sci-fi television drama to wondrous effect.

U.S. soldier Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is trapped inside the body of another soldier.  Colter is part of a U.S. government post-anti-terrorism operation run by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), not unlike Max Von Sydow's pre-crime unit in "Minority Report", a film "Source Code" only very faintly echoes.  ("Deja Vu" is another film I thought about as I watched "Source Code".)  One of the characters explains what source code is, and for the sake of simplicity and spoiler avoidance it is best to allow the character to explain. 

A bomb has exploded on a Chicago-bound train.  Colter sits across from Christina (Michelle Monaghan) on a train.  They have a playful flirtation.  Are they strangers on the same train?  Or a different one?  Or a train that doesn't even exist?  Next thing we know, Colter's enveloped in dark, isolated environs looking at a monitor, talking to Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) who is on it.  Goodwin, a government operative, instructs Colter to dig deep, exhorting him to find out who planted the bomb. 

Duncan Jones, who only two years ago crafted the sci-fi drama "Moon", goes one better here, avoiding a sophomore jinx with "Source Code".  Each moment of this new film is entirely credible from the perspective of Colter, its protagonist.  "Source Code" ponders the 21st century implications of an America with terror and the degrees to which that terror and its professed antidotes may or may not be manufactured. 

As a sci-fi film "Source Code" doesn't contain bloated techno-speak or macro-scale styles ala "Inception".  Mr. Jones's film is superior to Mr. Nolan's, and for that matter the recent "Adjustment Bureau", a more elegant, less rigorous thriller.  "Source Code" explores issues of freedom of action, and delivers its narrative with economy, avoiding the need to linger in reverence, grandeur or pretense.  We are told only what we need to know, having to figure out the rest as we and Colter go along, giving us complete investment in his quixotic, bewildering ordeal.  Colter's as mystified and amazed by everything he's absorbing as we are.  The film and the audience are on the same page, never in front or lagging behind.

Mr. Gyllenhaal is particularly good as the existentially-challenged Colter, using mischief, cynicism and nervy impulsiveness to investigate what the devil is going on around him.  Some of the more mysterious and creepy elements of Mr. Gyllenhaal's work in "Donnie Darko" emerges in Colter, an intensely synaptic and phobic fellow struggling to grasp reality.  Colter's also a paranoid, xenophobic brat whose muscular and menacing approach to solving mysteries is at excess imbalance with his emotional well-being.  He's unable to think or feel anything but the passing of time or the audio-visual soundtrack that has been scratched on an out-of-control turntable. 

In some of his work, notably "Zodiac" and "Brothers", Mr. Gyllenhaal plays up fearful, irritated angst that comes close to eating his characters alive.  In David Fincher's "Zodiac" the actor is an investigator too, but relentlessly obsessive and compulsive.  As a real-life character in Robert Graysmith, Mr. Gyllenhaal pushes and pushes until he faces his fear head on, and blinks.

Vera Farmiga as Colleen and Jeffrey Wright as Rutledge in Duncan Jones's sci-fi thriller "Source Code".  Summit

Despite its energy and contagious familiarity, "Source Code" has unflinching bravado.  Mr. Jones goes places with his film you didn't think possible.  Places where edits should be are abandoned.  Where action should stop, it doesn't.  "Source Code" has a lot to show us, but isn't necessarily showy in the process.  The visual effects however, are stunning, lending an atmosphere of chaos and imbalance.

Aside from Mr. Gyllenhaal's fine work there are great supporting performances from Ms. Monaghan, an underrated actress (see "Trucker") who has played this role before in these types of dramas ("Eagle Eye" and "Mission: Impossible III".)  Ms. Monaghan brings charm and a cutesy, kittenish appeal to her encounters with Mr. Gyllenhaal.  There's lots of lively banter, supplied largely by Ms. Monaghan.  There are plenty of close-ups of both actors, with reverse angles and sharp cinematography.

Mr. Wright is great as the nebbish, calculating director of the anti-terror operation.  Whether in films like "Basquiat", "Ali", "Shaft", "Syriana", "The Manchurian Candidate" or "Cadillac Records", Mr. Wright brings a versatility and range many actors with greater largess lack.  Rutledge is a haughty, stilted creation evoking some of the wiliest and mendacious sci-fi incarnations.  He's a creepy, dispassionate man basking in his sheltered, authoritarian way.  Ms. Farmiga excels as Colleen Goodwin, discreet and self-contained.  She possesses an intelligence you are aware of, though she doesn't flaunt her knowledge.   

There's a fascinating contrast between these characters.  Colter is contained, yet free to roam in a narrow slither of time, doing so in the biggest, most creative ways possible, while Goodwin and Rutledge are mostly confined within a monitor.  The latter characters have a small space to exist in, while Colter has a space to operate in that is narrow or incredibly large.  The mind, we are oft-reminded, is a powerful thing, a terrible thing to waste.

A few smaller but vital characters arrive in "Source Code" and are jarring reminders of what has been newsworthy over the last few months.  They may appear lightly written by Ben Ripley but are all too real.  Mr. Ripley's dialogue is thoroughly enjoyable at every turn.  And there's comic relief as well from someone you may recognize.

Totally immersive and entertaining, Mr. Jones' film is the best of its genre since "Minority Report".  A vivid mix of action, comedy and hair-raising hell, "Source Code" sustains itself beautifully from its dizzying, dazzling start and doesn't let go until it finally breathes in its waning minutes.  Those latter minutes could have been excised, but they bring the emotional climax and fresh air that this strong, impressive film absolutely deserves.

With: Michael Arden, Russell Peters, Brent Skagford.

"Source Code" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for violence including some disturbing images, and for language.  The film's running time is one hour and 33 minutes.

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