People like mystery stories because of the satisfaction of solving one. Looking for clues, sizing up characters, watching a film competitively; all require active participation from an audience. Source Code, the second feature-length film from Director Duncan Jones, is emblematic of this, with a meandering plot that misleads as often as it reveals. Assuming the pieces are all in place, this is a thoroughly engaging experience, and leads to the cryptic praise of satisfied watchers who want to tell you everything but simply can’t reveal anything, lest the enumerable unveilings be ruined. Despite the film’s shifting moods, Jones has put together a lively action film that serves double-time as an exhausting mind puzzle.
Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens on a train speeding towards the city of Chicago. There’s a woman named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) seated across from him, speaking to him in fact, as though she knows him. She calls him Sean, and after a glance at his driver’s license and a mirror, he discovers that he is, somehow, another person. Then a bomb goes off, Stevens wakes in a dark capsule, and he is brought up to speed by Capt. Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and her mysterious overseer, the eccentric Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright). It is from here that the film begins peeling away layer after layer of facts and fictions: Stevens is inside the source code, a program used to recreate the last eight minutes of a dead person’s life, the train Stevens just returned from was actually blown up that morning, and there is another attack planned. Stevens must find the bomb and the bomber, returning to the crime scene as many times as it takes. Insert reference to Groundhog Day here.
What works best in Source Code is the persistent sense that literally anything could happen next. Once Stevens really starts to explore the world of the source code, it becomes less and less clear where reality truly exists, which keeps the stakes in a constant flux. Apart from any of the script’s cleverness or convolution, this just makes for a fun film to watch. The action is mostly exciting and there’s enough extemporaneous information required that you’re almost never bored. As for the salient details of working the source code, these are handled in the same way any film handles science that laymen simply can’t understand: by touching the surface and glossing over the rest. Ultimately this is fine, and doesn’t take anything away from the film. It just points Source Code towards the “fiction” end of sci-fi. Without revealing anything, the film also makes some interesting points about the commitment of a serviceman, and how far is too far to save a life. These are massively broad themes and Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley never go much further than simply illuminating the complexity of them. Still, even a glance at the philosophy of life and death is more than most action films are willing to cede.
Where Jones struggles is in directing his actors. This same problem was present in Moon, though he was fortunate enough in that case to have Sam Rockwell to let loose. Here he’s dealing with a legitimate cast, and a main character shifting between two starkly different realities. This results in Jake Gyllenhaal performing a sort of split character, whose vacillations make him seem more manic than conflicted. In his source code capsule, Stevens is confused and emotionally gaunt; often frustrated and forgetful. The transition to the reality of the train though finds him smiling and teasing, even joking with Christina and the other passengers. While these characterizations often make sense in the moment, it ends up leaving Capt. Stevens a rather inconsistent character. This inconsistency persists through to the tone of the film, with Source Code running a gambit of Action, Drama, Comedy, Science Fiction, and settling somewhere in the middle of them all. The film’s story is ambitious, as are its themes. Though not less frustrating, this makes the fluid tones at least a bit more understandable.
Source Code is a film that tries to be everything to everyone, but remains entertaining enough to come out the other side mostly successful. Jake Gyllenhaal is certainly a strong actor, and has no trouble carrying this role, though that’s no surprise. There’s a pleasing mix of science fiction and reality, which often makes for the most successful sci-fi. And on a personal note, there’s no shortage of love for the Windy City. Even the Bean makes an appearance! It’s a film that seems about perfectly placed in the year, coming just after the Oscars but before the summer blockbusters; an eccentric mind-bender that, though a bit untidy, remains highly captivating to the last.