When Jake Gyllenhaal’s character opens his eyes in the first scene of Source Code, he doesn’t know where, or even who, he is. When the film starts doling out answers, the question just gets shifted to the existential level. The second feature from Duncan Jones packs a spirit of philosophical inquiry into a familiar genre, which seems like a developing specialty for the director who put Sam Rockwell through a similar identity crisis with the pensive science-fiction mystery Moon. Working from a script by Ben Ripley, Jones ups the pace with Source Code, but keeps asking the big questions, even while Gyllenhaal frantically searches for a threat almost as old as movies themselves: a bomb aboard a moving train.
Trouble is, it’s a particularly elusive bomb, the sort that might take even the most committed good guy a chance or two to defuse. The film’s central conceit gives him just that. Like a compressed Groundhog Day, Gyllenhaal has to relive the same eight-minute stretch aboard a Chicago commuter train until he gets it right. Only it’s not cosmic forces forcing him to repeat himself but a government program that puts Gyllenhaal, a soldier who recently served in Afghanistan, in the shoes of a Chicagoan on his way to work. What’s more: Getting it right won’t save anyone aboard the train, not even Gyllenhaal’s fetching companion Michelle Monaghan. The explosion happened hours ago, they’re already dead, and he’s charged only with finding the bomber before more die.
Cleverly structured up until a problematic finale, Source Code develops two mysteries at once: who’s responsible for the bomb and how Gyllenhaal is able to project himself into someone else in the first place. Getting to the bottom of the first requires Gyllenhaal to pay careful attention to every detail of his commute, and those making it with him. The film builds a nervous energy through repetition, as Gyllenhaal relives the same moments hoping for different results before the two mysteries converge into one weird, unexpected moment of grace. Then, the movie has the bad sense to keep going into an unsatisfying denouement.
Still, for a while it’s the rare film that—in the mold of the first Matrix movie and Inception, although on a more modest scale than either—mixes heady puzzles with gripping suspense. Measured performances from Gyllenhaal and Monaghan give thinly conceived characters much-needed gravity, but it’s Jones’ restrained direction that keeps Source Code moving, and confirms him as the rare filmmaker able, or maybe just choosing, to understand that even movies with explosions don’t have to be dumb to entertain.