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High Concepts Pay Off:

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Source Code
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Vera
Farmiga and Michelle Monaghan

THRILLING MOMENTUM: Michelle Monaghan and Jake Gyllenhaal star in the thriller, ‘Source Code.’ Courtesy photo.

movie stars
A strong concept can be the foundation of a great movie. Still, there has to be more than a cool idea to make something worth watching. Modern filmmakers too often have coasted by on an excellent idea, expecting it to carry a two-hour feature. The new thriller “Source Code” is a textbook example of a movie that understands that concept is less important than execution.

Army Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a commuter train heading toward Chicago. He has no idea how he got there or who the people on the train are. His last memories are of piloting a helicopter in Afghanistan. Before he can make heads or tails of his current situation, a bomb is detonating, eventually killing everyone on board.

Captain Stevens wakes up in a sterile room.  He is disoriented and tries to come to grips with his loose grasp on reality. The only contact he has is a face on a monitor, his military liaison Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) who fills in the gaps. Stevens is the test subject in a radical experiment. The train he was on, the people he met, the bomb that killed so many was a real event, one that occurred hours earlier. The government is desperate to find the bomber, who is hours away from executing another attack.

Stevens is able to board the train thanks to the source code, a virtual simulation. He can gather intelligence eight minutes before the bomb explodes and identify the killer before more lives are lost. The process is difficult for Stevens. His memory is patchy, and his instincts are to try and stop the passengers on the train from being killed. Despite the military’s best efforts to keep him on course, Captain Stevens finds himself entranced by a young woman named Christina (Michelle Monaghan).

In essence, the movie is a high stakes version of “Groundhog Day”—the same events play over and over again with slightly different outcomes each time. Stevens believes that his trips back can help shape the events differently, even though he is told that what he is experiencing is not real. So much of the movie deals with the grim realities we often refuse to face. Stevens’ hellish existence could drive anyone mad, forcing them to live on repeat over and over again until the puzzle is solved.

While the concept is pretty smart, the characters are a little dense. I like Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s a perfectly functional actor with a few ounces of charisma. This is by far the best movie I’ve ever seen him in. It doesn’t give him many opportunities to devolve into  melodrama. Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) brings his cerebral style to the character of Doctor Rutledge, a man tasked with creating the program that will save the lives of millions at the cost of his own humanity.

This movie is all about momentum. There’s no time for stopping or thinking—something that holds true for the characters and the audience. Neither of those things will help someone enjoy “Source Code.” Director Duncan Jones (Moon) does an outstanding job of balancing concept and character. What works is keeping a story with such scope a relatively small affair. Most of the movie is spent in three rooms, and yet it never feels isolated.

“Source Code” is the kind of high concept thriller that the “Adjustment Bureau” was begging to be, but it works so much better because of the stakes. There’s life and death at play here, millions of innocent people at risk of a terrorist attack. And yet the smaller battle for Stevens’ soul stirs up the most compelling drama. There’s also some great twists and turns that I really can’t touch on, lest I ruin some surprises.

It’s, hands down, the best movie I’ve seen so far in 2011. In hindsight, I found myself comparing “Source Code” to others of its ilk, like “12 Monkeys” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”—movies that took great ideas, packed them with nuanced characters, and threw a whole lot of crazy at them. They were stories that involved a brutal reality of a crumbling world, where winning still came with grave consequence. While it doesn’t quite achieve “classic” status, “Source Code” is an achievement in mainstream filmmaking. Its cool concept, seamless execution and smart writing combine for the best thriller I’ve seen in ages.

Source Code | Movie Trailer | Review

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