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Home / Articles / Entertainment / Screen /  A contraption, but it works
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Thursday, April 7,2011

A contraption, but it works

By Michael Phillips

 

Call it strangeness on a train. The highly gimmicky, very entertaining new thriller Source Code takes place mostly on a passenger car, part of the fictional Chicago Commuter Rail line, speeding toward the Loop carrying a bomb planted by an unknown terrorist. Our point person in this pressurized scenario knows nothing about the detonation to come, how he got there, where he’s getting off or how he came to know his chatty, sympathetic fellow passenger, played by Michelle Monaghan. Rough commute! Utter disorientation, followed by fireballs.

 

Then, someone hits the “reset” button and Jake Gyllenhaal must relive those eight minutes in hopes of a better outcome. Written by Ben Ripley with relentless focus on structure and a tiny bit left over for character, Source Code wisely does not stretch out its guessing games regarding Gyllenhaal’s character past the point of exasperation. The actor, who has a dogged way of staying calm under the craziest narrative circumstances, plays a decorated U.S. Army helicopter pilot and Afghanistan war veteran who, upon that first explosion, wakes up to find he’s actually in an American military lab, in a tightly confined space. He communicates only with Capt. Goodwin, played by Vera Farmiga, who answers to the so-called Source Code experiment’s creator, Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright, who has a witty way with a bureaucratic ras cal).

The team has only hours to solve the inevitable train bombing, thereby preventing a larger, more deadly threat on the horizon.

Comparisons to Groundhog Day can and have been made willy-nilly. This movie is really several eight-minute films — an omnibus feature unto itself. Each time Gyllenhaal’s Capt. Stevens time-travels back to the same place on the train and the same fateful final minutes, he scrambles to piece together a little more of the puzzle. “Find the bomb, and you will find the bomber,” Goodwin says. Chicago’s fate, not to mention its future cinematic exploitation possibilities, hangs in the balance.

I like the size and scale and itchy excitement of this medium-budget picture (reportedly in the $30 million-$40 million range). While Monaghan has played richer roles, she’s very shrewd about finding variations on a theme and forcing the audience to regard her character a little differently in each replay. Stevens realizes he really, really, really likes the Monaghan character and would like very, very, very much to save her. Can Rutledge’s grand plans accommodate this impulse? While I don’t find Gyllenhaal the most exciting leading man, he’s effective in conveying straightforward, sincere devotion to a romantic cause.

Director Duncan Jones made a considerable impression with his earlier feature, Moon, starring Sam Rockwell, which told of an isolated man caught in a different sort of technological crisis. Shot almost entirely on soundstages in Montreal, Source Code necessarily maintains a rhythm one might describe as “here we go again” (if the movie doesn’t work for you) or “one more time!” (if it does). The recent Vantage Point, which rehashed the same political assassination from a wearying number of angles, never quite transcended its contrivances. Source Code is a contraption, no doubt. But it works.

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond:letters@boulderweekly.com

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