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'Source Code': Jake Gyllenhaal is on his game -- and this thriller is all about the game

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Source Code
Jonathan Wenk

I confess this here at my peril: I am not adept at solving movie puzzles. Give me a Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle — always the hardest one of the week — and I can whip through that sucker with (relative) ease. But show me a movie in which the way the story is told is its own game and I’m the one still fitting the pieces together as the credits roll. (I’m also pretty terrible at guessing who did it in a whodunnit movie, but that’s partly because the guessing interests me far less than analyzing the cinematic machinery by which the whodunnit is revealed.)

It’s not that I can’t or don’t eventually complete the picture. It’s just that the personal computing power required to do so often has the effect of distracting me from what that big picture is, both dramatically and emotionally. Assuming the picture is bigger than the game-playing. (Ah, Memento spools backwards! Inception deepens in layers of both space and time! Sucker Punch piles one fantasy on top of another! Citizen Kane‘s Rosebud was a sled!)

So: How about that Source Code? (Ah, it twists time in a loop!) Did you figure out what happened at the very end of the picture? Are you sure? By the time I did — at least I think I did — my emotional investment in the love relationship between Jake Gyllenhaal’s Army pilot and Michelle Monaghan’s girl-on-the-train had dwindled, siphoned off by my intellectual investment in figuring out what version of the past — or was it the future? — those two had entered.

Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy Source Code tremendously. The movie is, I think, Jake Gyllenhaal’s best work in recent years; I love the subtle personality shifts he brought to his character (in the body of a soon-to-die man) with each iteration of the eight-minutes-to-kaboom cycle on the train. And I love how, even as a soldier strapped into his pod and receiving instructions, the actor was able to express similar shifts in the consciousness. The picture is filled with cool movie-making moves, too, from director Duncan Jones. And great tick-tock tension each time the action returned to that train.

And yet. I wish I could see a version of Source Code told in a straight, linear fashion, placing the emphasis on character and emotional development rather than on structural novelty. For that matter, I wish I had the option of seeing every twisty-bendy new movie in the catalog simultaneously in an alternative cut that starts at the beginning and unspools  forward to the conclusion.  Radical, right?