Duncan Jones is certainly a young director to watch. His first film Moon (2009) was revolutionary, one of the best science fiction films of the 21st century so far, and it quite rightly has developed a cult following. For his follow up, 2011’s Source Code, Jones called upon the leading man charm of Jake Gyllenhaal, to carry the peculiar, in many ways Groundhog Day-esque, sci-fi thriller. Gyllenhaal is military man Colter Stevens who wakes up on a commuter train with no idea why. A beautiful lady in front of him by the name of Christina (Michelle Monaghan) keeps calling him Sean and claiming she knows him. In all the confusion a bomb explodes somewhere in the train and everyone perishes. Colter then wakes up in some type of capsule with Vera Farmiga’s Captain Goodwin communicating with him through a computer screen. The shady Dr Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) lurks in the background teasing at unknown secrets to come.
It’s a lean film, coming in at just under 90 minutes, and yet it packs more into its runtime than most films manage in 120 or 150. That is in part due to a very tight script from Ben Ripley, who ratchets up the tension from the word go. He expertly weaves a tale of great stakes both personal and for the greater good. The mystery aspect is slowly unravelled and it concludes with at least a couple of knockout moments. Knowing the ending doesn’t cheapen a second viewing either, and in fact another watch rewards the viewer who pays attention and seeks out the teases and nods.
This sort of action thriller can only work if the actors are on top form, and thankfully Jones and his crew recruited four excellent lead actors. Gyllenhaal’s ability to switch from charming, smooth ladies man, to cool and collected army vet, straight into panicked, flustered and at times terrified civilian out of his depths is absolutely incredible. Monaghan’s Christina has more depth and more gravitas than she would have had in many other similar films played by other actresses. Even though we understand the train has already exploded, we still root for her, urging her to escape with Gyllenhaal’s Colter/Sean hybrid. The two of them actually spend a rather small amount of the film together, and of course she sees him as Sean not Colter, so it is a true testament to the two performances that we are so invested.
Instead most of Gyllenhaal’s screen time, when he’s not assaulting random civilians on the train, is spent interacting with Farmiga’s Goodwin on the small television screen. Again even though she spends 90% of her performance simply acting to a camera, Farmiga is able to display expertly the conflicting mentalities rattling around in her character’s brain.
Carried by these great performances Source Code is an intelligent action thriller. Thankfully it finds a nice middle ground between explaining too little, and trying to over-explain the science-fiction elements involved. Still, it will likely be divisive when the end credits roll. That does not mean it is one to be missed. It’s a tense and at times emotional thriller, which you’ll be discussing (/arguing about) for weeks once it fades to black.