The Dinner: roast-chicken salad at Subway (4336 Roosevelt Way N.E.).
Jonathan Wenk © 2010 Summit Ent. LLC Strangers on a train: Gyllenhaal and Monaghan.
The Screenplate: Nobody loves the Metro. Landmark's multiplex is located in an ugly building just above an ugly strip of Northeast 45th Street, and there's no place nearby where you really want to eat. Sure, there's Bilbao right next door, and it's . . . OK (better for a quick drink before a movie). University Way has much better fast-food pickings, which is fine for the Grand Illusion or Varsity. But when you're in a hurry, even allowing for the 15 preceding minutes of ads and trailers before a show, and if you've already parked close to the Metro, do you really want to walk over and back to the Ave? That's when you consider eating at a franchise. This proved to be a novel experience for me--never before having ventured inside a Subway--prior to an ingenious sci-fi thriller all about novelty and repetition. Poor Jake Gyllenhaal has to save Chicago from a nuclear bomb by reliving the last eight minutes in some stranger's body, over and over again, before a train explosion that recurs many times in Source Code. Subway is all about repetition, too. So how do they compare . . . ?Subway is a huge, successful franchise chain that's grown and succeeded, in part, by being the anti-McDonalds. The weight loss of unlikely spokesdude Jared Fogle furthered the chain's cachet, since nobody drops pounds on a diet of Big Macs, fries, and Coke. But, while it's selling healthy cuisine, Subway--meaning its franchise operators--has to shave down its costs just like any other fast-food joint (particularly when it's paying more for fresher ingredients). Ambience and decor are secondary, as most locations are strongly geared to the takeout market. At a strip-mall location on 45th, the Subway shop faces a small, busy parking lot that it shares with a donut shop and teriyaki joint. This is a place where people drive up and depart with cyclical regularity: enter, order, pay, leave. Being a rare sit-down customer in the restaurant, one eye on the watch, gives one a view of this efficient sequence.
Also with an eye on his watch is Gyllenhaal's disoriented military pilot. By sci-fi magic he doesn't fully understand, he's now repeatedly piloting a new body on an eight-minute mission in Source Code, attempting with each cycle to better observe his fellow passengers to see who planted the bomb. Everyone is a stranger on this train, including himself (named Colter in his prior life, Sean in this odd new existence), including the friendly, cute girl who seems to know and like him (Michelle Monaghan). In order to prevent the crime, he has to assume the worst about everyone, yet one of the movie's pleasures is how often he's wrong in his suspicions. He follows someone, interrogates them, hits a dead end, then BLAM! the train blows up again. It's a seemingly futile purgatory, the same failures and frustrations in slightly different combinations. (Between deployments, he's given confusing and often contradictory guidance by his military handlers, Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright.) He's on an existential treadmill, not unlike the similarly mission-defined hero of Moon, the first feature by director Duncan Jones (whom we interviewed at SIFF two years ago). His new job defines him, confines him, and he may never be able to go back to his old identity.
The counter dudes at Subway don't face quite the same hazards, but they have a helpful, friendly decency not so different than Gyllenhaal's character's. Since the subs are made to order, there are a daunting array of options--turkey, ham, rye, and what kind of cheese?!?--that can have the neophyte customer staring at the menu for precious minutes. And, like Gyllenhaal, my time is limited . . . but what to order? I can't decide! I don't even like submarine sandwiches! Why am I here? (Well, to answer my own question, because I'm parked just around the corner and don't have time to walk to Pagliacci.)
So to simplify matters, I order the roast-chicken salad ($5), thinking it won't be so complicated. This is and isn't the case: After the pre-roasted chicken breast is briefly microwaved and sliced, there are spinach options, red and green pepper options, dressing options . . . so many options! To save time--the clock is ticking!--I forgo most of them, order a water, and study the street as I dine. (And the salad is pretty good, better than takeout salad from Safeway, but not up to the level of Metropolitan Market.)
45th is not a street for loitering; everyone's in a hurry, and the sidewalks don't invite conversation. Everyone's a stranger, and no one wants to pierce the anonymity. Which is rather like Gyllenhaal's commuter train with the mad bomber aboard. Each false-start investigation draws the antagonism and ire of other riders. Somewhere in his soul or former self, Colter/Sean doesn't like what he's doing, but there's the consolation of the girl; and each time they meet, as if for the first time (though it's not), he learns to be more attentive and affectionate. Likewise, with the exception of the bomber, Jones gradually warms us to the other train passengers, however hurried and impatient--to be blown up!--they first seem. Without divulging anything in a spoiler-filled and implausibly multiply ended movie (hey, it's sci-fi, not Jane Eyre), one of the film's nicest moments is a freeze frame of the railway car, as the camera pulls back to show them laughing and smiling for once at a fellow commuter.
Gyllenhaal's pilot, in a sense, is trying to get to that same happy place: Told he can't return to Afghanistan (or be Colter), he finds sense in the nonsensical by being of service to the community. Maybe he gets the girl, perhaps none of it's real, and possibly his handlers are deceiving us all. But if Gyllenhaal's character wants to believe in his own free will and free agency, utopias are like movies in that regard--you've got to suspend your doubts and hope for the best. In which sense, Source Code delivers: It's one of the best films of the new year. And with all its twists and varied scenarios, Jones' impressive movie definitely invites repeat viewings. And Subway? Sure, I'd go back again, too.