Jake Gyllenhaal plays Capt. Colter Stevens, an army helicopter pilot. The last thing Stevens remembers, he was flying missions in Afghanistan, and when he wakes up on a Chicago-bound commuter train, across from a pretty brunette named Christina (Michelle Monaghan), who keeps calling him Sean, he is understandably confused. He stumbles around the train for a few minutes until he makes it to the restroom, where he finds someone else’s face staring back at him. Then the train explodes, killing everyone onboard.
And then Stevens wakes up again, this time in a sort of capsule, talking on a video monitor to Capt. Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who tells him that he is part of a military program called Source Code which allows him to inhabit a man, in this case high school teacher Sean Fentress, for the last eight minutes of his life. Stevens needs to use these eight minutes to figure out who bombed the train before they strike again. If he fails he can try again, fail again and fail better.
These multiple attempts give an interesting, Groundhog Day feel to the movie, as Stevens uses each quantum leap to follow a particular lead or investigate a specific passenger, finding out where the bomb was hidden or following a Middle Eastern passenger (innocent, of course) as he gets closer and closer to the truth.
The film is very clever about handing out just enough information at a time to keep us constantly intrigued, but not too much to ruin the suspense. The science behind the premise is preposterous, of course, but the film gives us just enough explanation (“quantum mechanics, parabolic calculus”) to allow us to accept it and move on. The film follows multiple plot threads, as Stevens tries to find the bomb while also learning more about the program and how he came to be part of it.
Stevens isn’t to try to save anyone on the train, since this isn’t time travel, but merely a replay. He can interact with his surroundings, but at the end of eight minutes, everything stops. The dead remain dead. But as he spends more and more time around Christina (or the same amount of time, multiple times, whatever), he starts to wonder whether he can save her after all. And should he try, even if he can’t? It’s through this that the script, by Ben Ripley, raises some gnarly existential questions about free will, ethics, logic, the whole megillah.
Source Code is the second feature from director Duncan Jones, whose first film, Moon, in which Sam Rockwell was the lone occupant of a lunar mining station who faced an identity crisis similar to Gyllenhaal’s here. With this film, Jones has confirmed that he has a knack for making smart, slick sci-fi that has a surprising amount of heart.
The film always remains centered on its characters and allows them to drive the story, at least as much as a movie about a bomb on a train can. The film is full of relentless forward motion, even as it treads the same ground over and over. Jones keeps the pace up, never letting the movie feel repetitive as it goes through its various eight-minute cycles, but he never loses sight of the people that populate the story. As interesting as the story’s science-fiction trappings are, the movie gets as much mileage out of the connections between the characters. The film is more intimate than most thrillers, and draws you in toward its characters, allowing them, and our affection for them, to remain our focus more than any explosions or gunplay.
Anybody who has seen Monaghan in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or Trucker will understand how Gyllenhaal could fall for her so quickly. The actress unfortunately often gets stuck playing “the girl” in movies like Eagle Eye or Due Date, and that is almost the case here, but Monaghan has such an easy charm that she fills out what could have been an underdeveloped role.
Gyllenhaal has a nice chemistry with Monaghan, whom he falls for a little more each time, as each iteration reveals different aspects of her personality. Gyllenhaal makes an appealing lead, and sells the alternating notes of confusion, suspicion and discovery that Stevens goes through.
Farmiga is quite good in a role that starts out crisp and curt, but eventually sneaks some depth in around the edges. Jeffrey Wright, one of my very favorite actors working today, is somewhat wasted as Dr. Rutledge, the vain bureaucrat who created the Source Code program, but he plays his part with wit and panache.
Source Code is a slick, shiny thriller, to be sure, but it’s smarter, sweeter and more engaging than most. The plot probably won’t hold up to much close scrutiny—how could it?—but it’s the film’s characters and ideas that keep us intrigued.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.