Memory, Time Travel, Terrorism, Romance, and Gyllenhaal: Source Code

By Daniel Garrett

Source Code, directed by Duncan Jones
Screenplay by Ben Ripley
Cinematographer Don Burgess
Production designer Barry Chusid
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright
Summit/Vendome, 2011

Jake Gyllenhaal is such a likable actor that one has to force oneself to take a critical look at his work and his films: are they as good as one is inclined to think? By now, I have seen him in enough different kinds of films to know that sometimes he is very powerful (Jarhead), very moving (Brokeback Mountain), very charming (Love and Other Drugs), and sometimes simply very pleasant to have around even when the effort seems disappointing (Prince of Persia). To me, he seems intelligent and pragmatic and slyly funny, as well as handsome and masculine in ways that are not alienating or intimidating; someone who does not indulge a great deal of pathos or piety. I cannot quite imagine how people in years to come will view his performance in Source Code, in which he is first a figure of ingenuity and tenacious force then one of the greatest vulnerability, as the film seems so much a part of our time, in terms of its aesthetics and its thematic concerns: about intervening in unfolding acts of terrorism, it is sleek and fast-moving and accentuates the possibility of individual agency and divergent consequences. The film presents a scenario in which scientists have found ways to recapture memories and investigate them for clues that may help prevent future disasters. Will the film seem visionary or shallow to people alive in the future? It is perfectly entertaining to me, and there are aspects of it that are provocative. How much responsibility does one want to take for others? Is it possible to stop unpredictable and uncontrollable disturbed individuals who intend to do things that put the mass public at stake?

In Source Code, Jake’s character, a military man, is charged with locating a bomb and bomber on a moving train; and as the film unspools we realize that we are seeing recreations of and interventions in a memory, a scientific possibility that, of course, has yet to exist in our own world. Tension is high; and lives are at stake. The intimacy created by Gyllenhaal and his co-stars, Michelle Monaghan in the train, and between Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga as an officer at a military base, is enough to give the scenario some attraction and conviction. Farmiga, whom I have seen in “Roar” and The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas, Nothing but the Truth, and Up in the Air, continues to bring complex awareness to her performances; and here a military officer’s respect and sympathy break through focused professional distance. Jeffrey Wright, who may be a great actor, and was previously featured in the productions of Tony Kushner, Julian Schnabel, and Ang Lee among others, here plays a supervising scientist of both moral purpose and amoral drive (however it was odd to watch him and realize that I was thinking of Orson Welles). Alas, I was not convinced I was watching a story that was likely or important, except for the significance—the brooding possibility—of what might happen to our bodies and brains once we no longer have control of or use for them.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. Garrett is organizing an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth, which awaits publication.