Friday, December 02, 2011

Strangers on A Train

It's funny, the things you think about after you watch a movie. Sometimes, they don't have anything to do with how good or bad the experience was. For instance: when I finished watching Source Code (2011, directed by Duncan Jones) the other night, my first thought was: "When did Jeffrey Wright start to turn into Orson Welles? I mean, he has the vocal intonations down, and he has the forehead. I can hear him saying, "We will sell no wine before its time," in my head. Then, as I was driving to work the next day, it occurred to me that the movie demonstrates the limits of the Bechdel test. It has the requisite number of women in the cast, both playing characters who have names, one of whom is not the hero's girlfriend, but these two characters don't talk to each other, so it fails. Vera Farmiga's part, in particular, is a pretty juicy one that doesn't require her to be a sex object or a victim. She's almost a hero. Michelle Monaghan gets the more traditional hero's girlfriend role, but she's pretty central to the movie, and not just eye candy. Anyway, these are just random impressions. Your mileage may vary.

The movie itself is a pretty clever sci-fi thriller that has an intriguing premise and a punchy delivery. The idea is that when someone dies, their consciousness has an afterglow like a light bulb going out, or, if you want, before the wave form collapses. This is a movie about quantum mechanics, after all. This afterglow lasts for eight minutes, and during that eight minutes, it can be examined with the right person and the right scientific geegaws. The practical effect of this is that it throws the consciousness of the examiner into the mind of the person who has died. This can happen in the past. It's not time travel, per se, so much as it's time forensics. That's the movie's big idea, and it's not bad as sci-fi premises go. Very John Varley-ish. The movie explains all of this with admirable economy, too, then dismisses it all as unimportant to the story, which, ultimately, it is. There's another big idea here, too, and that's the important one. I won't spoil that one, though. Best you discover that for yourself.

The story it builds around this premise is that a secret government program sends its agent into the mind of a man who was on a train destroyed by a terrorist attack. They want to know what happened and, more importantly, who planted the bomb. Their agent is Captain Coulter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a helicopter pilot from the Afghan theater who has the right physical profile to do the job. The process causes him some disorientation, and he doesn't know what's happening to him at first. At the beginning of the movie, he wakes up in the body of another man, a teacher named Sean Fentress, and he doesn't know how he got there or why he's now someone else. He's on the train, and he's talking to a girl. Around him are the suspects. He has eight minutes to find out what he needs. The movie sends him back into Fentress repeatedly, and the plot resembles an action movie version of Groundhog Day. What good is eight minutes? Well, that's what the movie examines. Interestingly, though, every time Stevens travels back into Fentress's consciousness, things change slightly. Stevens begins to suspect that he can change the past, but his handlers, Colleen Goodwin (Farmiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Wright) tell him that that's not possible. He's only in a simulation of the past, an after-image of the past, and what he does will not change things. Also, Stevens begins to wonder where he actually is, because he has no memory of signing up for this project. As events unfold, he begins more and more to suspect that his reality isn't what it seems.

The thing that drives this movie beyond its sci-fi premise and its action movie imperatives is an unusually close attention to characters. Most characters in this kind of movie are mannequins running through the plot--think of movies like Paycheck or Impostor if you want examples--but not here. The movie is less interested in what happens than in what its events mean for its characters, and this is where the movie sucks the audience in. In this, it shares its concerns with Duncan Jones's other movie, Moon, which was similarly structured around a man who didn't know what was happening to him or how he got there. Jones is using genre as a a speculum to examine the existential plight of his heroes and it marks this movie as distinctively his own. Jones is fortunate in his cast, too. The four principles are played by superior actors, none of whom is a conventional action star. The production looks to have paid its actors at the expense of some level of production value (not much, but enough that the set pieces are a shade off the state of the art), and it pays dividends. It also develops its characters at the expense of a big action climax, too, and I can't say that I miss that. The movie ends not on a bang--the resolution of the action plot is something of a fizzle, actually--but on a moral dilemma between what is pragmatic (a position taken by Wright's Rutledge) and what's humane (a position taken by Farmiga's Goodwin). The resolution of this dilemma has a surprisingly emotional kick, a kick amplified by the gruesome revelation of Stevens's actual lot in life.

It's been a while since a legitimate auteur showed up in the sci-fi genre. Most of the filmmakers who work the genre these days are obsessed with the fanboyish insistence on "awesomeness," rather than on ideas or stories. The spectacle is enough for them. Not for Jones. Both of his movies so far are introspective. His futures are inhabited by human beings, and how those human beings react to the challenges of those futures is more interesting than all the hardware and whiz bang action. Jones apparently knows this. I hope he never forgets it.

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