THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE END OF “SOURCE CODE.” READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.
I really enjoyed Duncan Jones’ “Source Code,” from the clever sci-fi premise to the charmingly grumpy lead performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, to the various twists and turns of the narrative. My one major complaint with the film was the ending, not for what it said, but for what it didn’t say. Here was what I wrote in my original review last month:
“The film’s ending is particularly unusual for a modern science-fiction film thanks to its emphasis on its hero’s personal growth rather than big explode-y action sequences. Still, as refreshingly atypical as that ending is, it also has a darker angle that the movie kind of ignores and which suggests Stevens’ behavior isn’t quite as heroic as it’s made out to be.”
Obviously I was being as vague as possible at the time for fear of spoiling any of the details. Now I think it’s safe — after one more SPOILER WARNING! — to delve deeper.
The darker angle I was referring to happens after Gyllenhaal’s Colter Stevens has accomplished his mission inside the source code: he’s repeatedly travelled into the body of a man named Sean Fentress eight minutes before he’s killed in a bomb explosion aboard a Chicago commuter train. Through an arduous process of trial and error, Stevens discovers the identity of the bomber and relays the information to his handlers. Together, they capture the bomber and prevent a second attack from occurring. Though Stevens feels normal (or as normal as a man sent bouncing through time can feel), he slowly realizes that he’s essentially a vegetable being kept alive only so his mind can interface with this source code technology.
His assignment over, Stevens convinces his handler, played by Vera Farmiga, to send his consciousness back into the source code one last time and then let his physical body die. Though Stevens has bene repeatedly told he can’t alter the fate of the train’s passengers, this time he does: he stops the first bombing, and saves the lives of everyone on board. When his eight minutes are up, he doesn’t return to his lifeless corpse, or to some metaphysical limbo: he keeps living inside Sean Fentress’ body, right alongside all the other survivors of the now failed bombing attempt. And that’s where the darkness creeps in.
If Stevens is inside Fentress’ body, what happened to Fentress’ consciousness? The only assumption we can draw is that it’s gone and that the real Sean Fentress is dead, essentially at the hand of Colter Stevens. Even while he saves everyone else on board the train, Stevens has basically become a murderer. Which, when you think about, isn’t exactly a heroic thing to do.
All of those details are available in “Source Code” but the film doesn’t announce them very loudly. The epilogue scenes of Stevens and Michelle Monaghan’s character enjoying a walk through Chicago’s Millenium Park and Farmiga’s character reading an email sent by Stevens from inside the source code are hopeful and a bit suspenseful but they’re not laden with menacing metaphysical overtones. It seemed to me at that first screening that the film was raising some very provocative questions that it didn’t really want to address.
Given my interpretation, I was intrigued by Jones’ comments about the ending, which he gave at a Q&A after a screening of the film in Boston. His thoughts were recorded by /Filmcast host David Chen, who played them during this week’s review of the film. Here’s some of what Jones had to say:
“So Colter Stevens, at the end of the film, begs Goodwin to let him take one more shot at sorting out this disaster on the train, stopping the bomb from going off. So he gets sent, he gets on the train, in what he discovers to be a parallel reality, stops the bomb going off, which means Sean Fentress is now dead although he shouldn’t be… Colter has basically forfeited Sean Fentress’ life just so he, Colter Stevens, can have a happy ending. I like that, because immediately although we have a happy ending, it’s ethically a little bit more ambiguous.
I never doubted a filmmaker as smart as Jones knew these sinister undertones were present in his film, I’m just surprised he wanted them there. I initially read “Source Code”‘s epilogue as studio mandated; that the quote-unquote “natural” place to end — Stevens goes into the source code one last time, saves everyone on the train in a hollow gesture, then dies after one moment of happiness — was deemed not commercial enough, necessitating this supposedly happier addition which actually contained all sorts of unintended horror. In fact, the opposite was true: the studio preferred what I would call the “hollow gesture” ending, and it was Jones who fought for the addendum, specifically because of what I read as unintended horror.
So what’s more important: the director’s intent or the evidence on the screen? Jones wants those questions about Stevens’ actions to be present, but are they present enough? I’m not saying we need a shot of Stevens looking at Cloud Gate and crying “Oh no! What have I done?” But a little bit of a clue, in the editing or the music, could have made a big difference to the way we feel after the film is over.
What this comes down to is a question of what we, as the audience, want from our movies. How often do we complain about being spoon fed messages in films? A lot. Listening to Jones, and thinking some more about the end of “Source Code,” I stumbled across another possible rationale for that ending. Here’s an example of a movie that buried its messages so deep, they feel like they’re there accidentally. By discovering them, it’s as if we’re seeing something we’re not supposed to. Which, in essence, is what Stevens is doing during the final scenes of the film. Farmiga and particularly Jeffrey Wright’s character don’t want him to consider the ethical ramifications of his actions inside the source code. By embedding these disturbing implications in the finale, Jones is rewarding us for learning to behave like his protagonist; to refuse the superficial truth that’s presented to us, and find the deeper reality hidden underneath.