Commute long enough, and it’s inevitable that you’ll nod off on a train. The strangest part about waking up, is that you can often wake with a start and find yourself desperately spinning the dials to put together where you are and what’s going on. How long have you been sleeping? Did you miss your stop? Are you at your stop with seconds to get out the door?
In this way, it’s mindset that really sums up the puzzle of SOURCE CODE. Well, at least the first few times we try to put the puzzle together.
SOURCE CODE begins with Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal)awaking suddenly on a Chicago commuter train. He is sitting across from a young lady named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) who is talking to him warmly about some life decisions. Two problems: Colter doesn’t know her, and Christina seems to think she’s talking to a guy named Sean Fentress. A trip to the restroom confirms what Colter saw in glimpses out the train window – that the body he inhabits isn’t his own.
Before he can make heads or tails out of his predicament, a bomb goes off and destroys the train.
Interestingly, Colter wakes up. He’s in some sort of close quarters, and is seeing a video feed from some sort of military op named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). She calms him somewhat and helps him engage his memory, and with the help of Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) gets Colter to understand the situation.
Colter is operating in a program called the Source Code – a program that can send a person into the body of someone who has died and relive their final eight minutes. Colter has been sent into Sean’s eight minutes to locate the bomb on the train, and perhaps provide information on the bomb and the bomber since more acts of terrorism have been promised.
The great thing is that if Colter doesn’t get what he needs, Goodwin and Rutledege just reset the Source Code and send him back. Again…and again…until he can get what they need.
SOURCE CODE is a puzzle, but for this particular puzzle what’s most fascinating isn’t just Colter putting together the pieces, but how he puts the pieces together. Just like any big problem, he varies his approach – from urgent, to methodical, to grinning and throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it sticks. We all go about our problem-solving differently: some of us will hypothesize, some will brainstorm, some will use deductive reasoning. Ordinarly tossing out what we’ve done and taking a different approach takes a great deal of mental adjustment. Colter, on the other hand just has to wait eight minutes.
Ordinarily doing the same thing repeatedly hoping for a different result is the definition of insanity. In SOURCE CODE, it’s actually one man getting closer and closer to the truth.
The truth, in this case, is the only absolute. This moment in time that Colter keeps jumping to is fluid…twisted…ever-changing. It’s very evocative of the sort of reflections one gets when standing in front of the Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park – a visual which is glimpsed often in the film and only fully explored during the conclusion.
Everything we see looks like something we know (the ticket being punched, the beverage spilling on the shoes), but Colter can manipulate what he’s seeing in different ways. He’s changing it, but still not. Thus the result of every jump into the Source Code feels like we’re standing in front of that giant shiny bean. We know what’s looking back at us, but take one step closer or one step back and it’s drastically altered.
Also interesting about the construction of SOURCE CODE is how we’re never really meant to take Colter’s immortality for granted. He’s well aware that he’s a walking ‘reset’ button, but you’re not about to see him mowing down pancakes and smoking proclaiming himself a god. While he does up the ante from time to time, it never seems to lower the stakes. Hell, one of his particularly painful decisions is even accompanied by a glorious “crunch” on the soundtrack.
Watching Jake Gyllenhaal navigate this film, we can see a definite evolution to Colter after tackling these events time after time. It’s subtle, which makes it feel all the more natural. When he first wakes up in the Source Code, it’s all he can do to get a firm grasp on his surroundings. By the time he makes his penultimate run, he’s filled with a gentle confidence. He’s a pianist playing a song that he’s rehearsed a thousand times. What makes his final performance of the song all the more engaging is that he’s no longer interested in just playing the right notes. Indeed when Colter plays his song for the final time, he wants to play it with feeling.
On paper, SOURCE CODE looked like a gimmick. It looked like the sort of film an up-and-coming director does when a studio digs their indie breakthrough and drops them into a project as a hired gun. But in execution, SOURCE CODE gives the subtleties and introspection of MOON a broader canvas and a few more players. It puts the pieces of mystery, perception, and desperation together in a very unexpected manner…and perhaps most fittingly, makes you want to get right back on the train for another eight minutes.