After the surprise success of his meditative sci-fi winner Moon two years ago, it was tough to deduce where Duncan Jones would next apply his directorial skills. With his follow-up Source Code , Jones has opted to stay true to his original endeavor, concocting a very human story wrapped within a compelling central premise. A sturdy sophomore effort, Source Code suffers from a few minor missteps, but generally holds up as an entertaining and soulful blast of imaginative cinema.
Waking up on a train that he has no recollection of boarding, Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) reaches the disturbing conclusion that he’s within the body of a man he doesn’t know. After foraging around for answers and questioning supposed friend Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the train detonates, leaving everyone on it dead. Colter then finds himself in a confined metal pod, with only a face on a video monitor to connect him with the outside world. The person on the other end is a military official named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), Colter reluctantly getting her to explain what’s going on. It transpires that he is within a computer program called Source Code, a creation used to relive the last 8 minutes of a deceased person’s life. Colter is then forced once again to endure the explosion, Goodwin explaining that he must tackle the same 8 minutes over and over until he can work out who’s responsible for the bombing. Colter then begins to form theories about who the villain could be, all the while pondering why he was chosen to complete this vital mission.
Source Code isn’t an all out action extravaganza, but it does provide viewers with several sequences of extreme tension. The screenplay, by Ben Ripley, is driven by character rather than a thirst for spectacle; consequently the film’s protagonists become genuinely sympathetic. Source Code is just as concerned with exploring isolation (an obvious link with Moon) and questioning reality, as it is in spooning out surface level thrills. The brain teaser at the movie’s core is suitably engaging and exciting, but it’s probably the exploration of other more intimate themes that impresses most. Source Code benefits from a cunning plot and intelligently written characters, an unusual feat for any motion picture to achieve, even less so one with such a tentative genre connection.
Gyllenhaal is good value as Colter, combing his usual cocksure charisma with a convincing sense of angst. As a result we are offered a charmingly complex turn, Gyllenhaal fully focused on morphing Colter into more than just an average action hero. Ripley provides the actor with tragic daddy issues and an acute aura of loneliness, allowing Gyllenhaal a little extra emotional beef to chew on. Certainly set beside Jones’ mind-bending tropes it’s a successful performance. I’ve not always been hyper complimentary about Michelle Monaghan in the past, but in Source Code the actress actually does a lot with rather little. Bonding sweetly with Gyllenhaal, Monaghan has to move through the same story beats time after time, yet the actress is subtly able to depict a growth in Christina. It’s undoubtedly a performance that is hugely aided by resourceful direction and marvellous editing, but still, the actress deserves commendation for preventing the production’s Groundhog Day foundation from forcing her to produce one note work. Similar praise should also be shot Farmiga’s way, although, as the creator of Source Code , the usually dependable Jeffrey Wright tends to overplay his morally duplicitous hand.
Jones keeps the visuals fresh, finding increasingly interesting ways to repeatedly retell the same 8 minutes of history. The film eventually becomes completely obsessed with Colter’s own personal predicament, but during the opening half Source Code is primed with taught suspense and well paced set-pieces. Each of these scintillating encounters is shot on a relatively small scale, but Jones has a natural talent for cultivating thrills out of the seemingly mundane. Sure, there’s a moment in which Gyllenhaal attempts to deactivate a monstrous looking explosive, but just as invigorating are his interactions with other passengers as he tries to crack the bomber’s identity. Adding to the project’s value is its adamant refusal to opt for a watery twist, instead culminating the overarching mystery with a logical yet entirely unpredictable conclusion.
Jones appears to lose confidence in his own abilities come the end, overcompensating frantically (and at egregious length) to try and reiterate the film’s sense of humanity. Thankfully, Farmiga and Gyllenhaal are on hand to lessen the damage, but unfortunately Source Code blunders to the finish line with an unnecessarily mawkish sensibility, undoing some of the artful sincerity of the picture’s earlier acts. A tighter and less indulgent conclusion would have been entirely possible, but Jones appears frightened that anyone should leave feeling his film lacked a sense of pathos or morality. Had he paid closer attention to the heartfelt and beautifully poised middle section, then he would realize such worries to be unjustified.
Source Code deserves to be labelled Hitchcockian for all the right reasons; it’s got solid performances, an agreeable screenplay and a director with an obvious knack for combining drama and panic to startlingly pleasurable effect. There are nits to pick, but ultimately it’s one of the safer reasons to venture out to the multiplex in the current cinematic climate.
Director: Duncan Jones
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga
Runtime: 93 min
Country: USA, France