Source Code is a high caliber thriller that is carried by Jake Gylenhaal’s subtle acting and less so on action or plot twists. In fact, two of the story’s biggest mysteries are, while not exactly predictable, not that difficult to surmise pretty early on. What is actually happening to our hero? Who on the train is the unknown villain? I won’t spoil it for you here, but suffice it to say there are some visual hints early on.
Yet I was not at all let down by having it figured out. The three main characters are so engaging that it hardly matters where the plot goes. Think of it as Groundhog Day meets Inception, replacing the humor of the former and the intensity of the latter with character development. I don’t want to exaggerate; Source Code does have its action and some suspense. It’s just that the movie doesn’t depend on those things.
The concept of a “source code” falls into the category of the dream manipulation in Inception. It is clever, sometimes vague and vulnerable to logical discombobulation. But just like many of Hitchcock’s fantastical plot devices, it just doesn’t matter, because it isn’t about realism; it is about how the hero responds to the crisis it presents.
Gylenhaal is Colter Stevens, a veteran of the Afghan war who wakes up, disoriented, on a train. He doesn’t remember why he is on the train, he doesn’t recognize the woman sitting across from him, and doesn’t recognize the reflection in the bathroom mirror. After eight minutes of confusion, the train blows up, killing everyone on board… and then Stevens wakes up in an isolation chamber of some sort. Quickly it is made clear that Stevens is part of some sort of military operation, though we are not told exactly what. Carol Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) appears on a monitor in the chamber and calms Stevens down, bringing back (some) memories and reminding him that he is on duty and must comply with the constrictions of the mission at hand. The mission? He must return to the train, and in eight minutes, locate the bomb and identify the bomber. If he fails, he will blow up, return to the isolation chamber, and then have to try again.
There is a bit of eye rolling frustration in Stevens’ extended ignorance, which is prolonged for the benefit of our cinematic suspense rather than military sense. While there are bigger secrets of which he is not supposed to know, he is hardly informed of the details of his mission for quite a while. Stevens’ superiors continue to repeat that “there is no time”, yet he continues to fail largely because he is kept ignorant. After he is briefed, he becomes quite an effective soldier.
Each time he is sent back in, fails, and returns to the chamber, we learn something new. Earlier that day, a commuter train had exploded, killing hundreds of people. By some miracle of science, Stevens is able to be placed into the final eight minutes of memory of one of the victims on board the train. In those eight minutes, he can act freely and investigate the source of the terrorism. Unfortunately, nothing he does on the train during those eight minutes would change what happened. “It’s not a time machine”, someone says. It’s just a detailed glimpse of the past, used to identify the bad guy before he strikes again.
Besides the race to capture a terrorist, there is another dilemma emerging. Goodwin, herself a soldier, is finding it increasingly difficult to keep Stevens in the dark. This is where the movie shines; Farmiga’s struggle is written all over her face, not in the script. We can tell that there is something unsavory going on, and that Goodwin does not like it. Gylenhaal, for his part, flashes brilliantly between confused man and dutiful soldier, developing our sympathy without cliche Hollywood crutches.
I like the tasteful pro-soldier vibe that emerges about two-thirds through. Not rah-rah America, mind you, but rather a recognition of the sacrifices soldiers make in the line of duty, and why they deserve respect. So we pull for Stevens not only because he is the script’s hero, but because he proves himself to be an honest soldier with a true sense of right and wrong. Jason Statham certainly kicks more ass in his action flicks, but Colter Stevens represents the kind of hard-nosed hero we would actually want in our armies, representing our country.