by Richard von Busack
WIELDING A GIMMICK only looks easy sometimes, and Duncan Jones’ frightfully good Source Code takes a Philip K. Dick-worthy speculative fiction situation and makes it compelling. A commuter train bound for Chicago has a bomb on it. Because of one of those new time/space-warping devices the U.S. military keeps around, they can beam an officer named Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) back to try to find the bomber.
Stevens’ control is Coleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). She’s our first indicator that nothing is going to be straightforward. Farmiga has one of the most expressive faces around for shock and tragedy. With those peculiarly enormous and brimming eyes, she pantomimes disaster by never really meeting Colter’s gaze. She has an excuse, though; she’s a mere presence on a video screen. The time-traveling officer takes his orders from her, bunkered in some very cold and remote undisclosed location, wired up like a test monkey. We get a wider view and can see that Goodwin’s own boss is worse, a real Mabuse; he’s played by Jeffrey Wright with half-glasses, a polio crutch and a beard.
The stage is set handsomely, then, and the twisting begins: Groundhog Day meets La Jetee, with a nice little garnish of The Manchurian Candidate. During his cycles into the past, Colter becomes fixated on a girl on the train (Michelle Monaghan, adorably girl-next-dooring it). She becomes a human stake in what will happen if the train evaporates into a fireball—as it does more than once. Source Code is nicely spun off that favorite idyll of wondering which of the fellow passengers on a streetcar is the terrorist.
When finding an escape route out of a seemingly inescapable situation, director Jones doesn’t cheat, and the movie goes surprisingly romantic. While a few films (the dire Dear John comes to mind first) tried to extract some bittersweet tear-jerking moments out of our endless war against terror, Source Code seems closest to achieving the desired mood of wartime sadness. Critics made a lot out of Moon, Jones’ debut, but Source Code’s tantalizing possibilities, wider spaces and superior acting constitute a better promise of genius to come.