A bewildered soldier (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train, meets a beautiful traveler (Michelle Monaghan) and talks to her for eight minutes before the train explodes. Next thing he knows he’s receiving some bewildering instructions: go back to the train and discover who planted the bomb—and so he goes, again and again, in eight-minute increments. It’s like a sci-fi/action Groundhog Day.
You’d figure the range of the gimmick would be limited and that the film would become monotonous. That it never does is a testament to the filmmakers’ inventiveness; a series of misdirections and jolting twists make this a nice surprise in an otherwise mediocre movie season. Some suspense thrillers peak too early or too late; this one keeps you in its grip for the entire ride.
After bulking up for the lousy Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, this is Jake Gyllenhaal’s breakout blockbuster performance. The supporting cast includes the always delightful Monaghan, Jeffrey Wright and Vera Fermiga, but this is Gyllenhaal’s show the whole way. The one-time Donnie Darko star is terrific in an intense, layered turn.
There are moments of excitement and dry humor to dilute the morbid premise and, without giving anything away, I’ll simply say I found the conclusion deeply satisfying.
Director Duncan Jones’s first movie was the far more somber and heavy-handed Moon, which also dealt with abusive authority figures and the fragility of life in a sci-fi context. This one is a lot more fun, though every bit the dramatic showcase for Gyllenhaal that Moon was for a never-better Sam Rockwell.
Jones, the son of none other than David Bowie, makes movies that play like easier-going, more audience-friendly Terry Gilliam films. He lacks Gilliam’s passionate artistry and a signature style as a filmmaker, but beginning his career with two smart audience puzzlers suggests a promising career.
The movie also has a message, though not a heavy-handed one: embrace the small moments, and don’t put off important things just because they’re difficult. It’s refreshing to see a film about death that’s genuinely life-affirming.