starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright
screenplay by Ben Ripley
directed by Duncan Jones
starring Juliette Binoche, William Shimell
written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami
by Walter Chaw The one part of Source Code that isn't duck-ass tight poses so many questions about the nature of our hero's heroism and the aftermath of the film that it opens up what initially seems a hermetically-sealed conceit into something of real depth and fascination. Far from the solipsism of failures interesting (Timecrimes) and not (Primer), different from marginal successes like 12 Monkeys and Déjà Vu, Duncan Jones's sophomore feature (after the similarly thorny Moon) plays most like a child of Last Year at Marienbad and a companion piece to Abbas Kiarostami's contemporaneous Certified Copy. It speaks in terms of quantum physics and string theory, but without pretension, achieving the almost impossible by introducing difficult concepts at the same pace with which its characters--not a dummy among them--are able to understand them without gassing (or worse, falling well behind) the audience. That it presents itself as a mainstream, popular entertainment is more to its credit, giving lie to the notion that Hollywood is bankrupt of ideas. Rather, it's the destination for gifted filmmakers--some of them smart enough, and resourceful enough, to hold fast to their idealism and intelligence for, if not an entire career, then at least long enough to set a bar.
Military helicopter pilot Capt. Stevens (Jake "Welcome Back, Donnie Darko" Gyllenhaal) awakens to find himself someone else on a commuter train bound for Chicago, talking to a beautiful young woman, Christina (Michelle Monaghan), and wondering who the guy in the mirror is just before he, and everyone else on board, is killed in a terrorist explosion. This then happens all over again. And again. And again. It's Groundhog Day reduced to eight minutes on a loop as Stevens learns that he's the only hope of discovering the bomber's identity, and that though it's unlikely you can fall in love with anyone--even Michelle Monaghan--in eight minutes, it's possible over the course of a day composed of those same eight minutes. If there's a message embedded in here about gathering rosebuds, so be it. Source Code earns its sentimentality, wrapped as it is in a film that talks about time as a river, sure, but a river given to endless diversions and vicissitudes. I guess what I like most about the picture is that it's smart as hell but doesn't let that get in the way of the real chemistry the leads have, or the real sadness of love (parental, romantic, patriotic, filial) in a temporary--very temporary, in this case--world.
Stevens's handler--should I even tell you he has one? Is it revealed in the trailer?--is Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), and part of Stevens's puzzle is to figure out who he's working for if he's working for someone, and who the guy with the crutch (Jeffrey Wright) is whom he sees lurking over Goodwin's shoulder on that little monitor. Perhaps it's enough to reveal that, like Moon, Jones handles the function of Stevens in his endless, frustrated lives and deaths with delicacy and a gratifying ambiguity. And that, like Moon again, he does nothing to ameliorate the pain and horror of individual sacrifice, despite the backdrop of obvious benefit to the greater good. Among the many beauties of Source Code is that it may not be until later that it becomes clear that there's more than one martyr in this story--and that this secondary martyrdom has perhaps doomed Stevens's self-prescribed outcome. I kind of love this movie. Not simply for its thoughtfulness and its concision, but for its wonderful reserve and craft, too. Jones, in just two films, has revealed the possibility for a real artistic identity: someone interested in proximate realities and the maybe-arbitrary distinctions we draw between what is "real" and what's a perceptual reproduction of reality.
Beyond a Cartesian dualism inherent in their complementary cosmology, Source Code and Certified Copy each suggest that there are no viable answers to questions surrounding destiny and fate; the decisions that we make, the things we believe, the persons we inhabit, are by their nature subjective to not only the participants but also, crucially and especially, to the observers (critics) who would seek to contextualize them. Certified Copy begins with author James Miller (opera singer William Shimell) speaking at a reading of a book of critical theory he's written concerning the fallacy of ascribing a different kind of "authenticity" and therefore value to a reproduction of a work of art as opposed to the work of art itself. It's attended, for a moment at least, by an unnamed French woman (Juliette Binoche) who delivers an invitation of some sort that James accepts. They take a drive through Tuscany and walk down the cobbled streets of an idyllic Italian village, talking and flirting as strangers at first and then, by the end, squabbling like the true married couple they maybe have been all along.
Iranian master Kiarostami makes his Western debut with Certified Copy and does so with an impossible facility that suggests a master filmmaker comfortable in his themes and his artistry. It's a "safe" movie with difficult ideas and existentially terrifying implications. Certified Copy follows the form and function of Linklater's Before Sunrise, Chris Marker's La Jetée, and, again, Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad by presenting a concept in flux that gradually, seductively pushes a relationship through enough subtly-shifting revolutions that it begins to shake all attempts at framing it. Are these two married or have they just met? Are they falling in or out of love? And how many layers of representation are there in this Lacanian construction, which basically implies that by placing us in the position of "unobserved observer," we're endowed with the responsibility of unravelling fundamentally unknowable truths about the temperature of the space between any two people.
A favourite on the festival circuit, with Binoche winning Prix d'interprétation féminine (Best Actress) at Cannes, Certified Copy is the arthouse version of Source Code, both pictures (along with last year's Inception and television's "Fringe" in ascendance) announcing possible themes of dreaming and the malleability of reality for this second decade of the new millennium. They are halves of a mesmerizing whole: the one promoted as a crackerjack sci-fi thriller, the other as the talky foreign product of an honest-to-gosh auteur, and the two together as an idea coming to maturity that while the world is unknowable, there's no cause to despair. Source Code's mantra of "it's going to be all right" is reflected in Certified Copy's assurance that everything is as it should be when viewed through the infinity of its surfaces and background processions of couples waltzing into eternity. If the aughts were indicated by their essential horror about bedlam, perhaps the teens will be indicated by their essential faith. It's something worth hoping for--and Source Code and Certified Copy represent, if nothing else, a demonstration of parallel genesis and the existence, in the heart and the head, of an idea as devalued, as sublime and full of desire, as zeitgeist. Originally published: April 1, 2011.