(Vaughn Stein, Hungary/Ireland/UK/USA, 2018)


Terminal is a word that, in the context of this film, refers to three things at once: 1. The setting is a vast (incredibly vast and mostly empty) train station. 2. There’s a huge bank of computer screens for the sake of somebody’s Dr Mabuse-like surveillance operation (the movie’s advertising graphic foregrounds this meaning). 3. The terminus of life is death.


The cleverness of this three-way pun outweighs its genuine significance, and that pretty much goes for the film as a whole. A comedy-thriller that leaps between its chosen genres, it is also a very strange amalgam of stylistic influences – running from the abandoned station setting of Orson WellesThe Trial (1963), through the proto-steampunk art-direction stylisations of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1984), and all the way to a proudly artificial colour scheme (cinematography by Christopher Ross) that goes beyond the florid neon of Wong Kar-wai (or, in an exact replica-reference, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors [2012]) into late R.W. Fassbinder garishness. The Coen brothers and a dozen other things are part of the soup, as well.


Mostly, on the narrative plane, Terminal has a 1990s retro feel – Tarantino scenes of violence, mutual betrayal and raised-gun bluff morphed into the brittle Britishness of Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, 1998). Snarling verbal obscenities are almost everything anyone speaks, on the order of the endlessly repeated “You’re a fuckin’ liability!” There’s lots of alpha-male jostling, but also a female/feminist revenge plan (where the feminist is also a pole-dancer). Abuse of childhood (covered up by various institutional corruptions) is somehow at the root of it all, just as it seems to be in every second thriller these days.


It’s a tricksy movie on every level. Without spoiling anything, it can be said that the plot’s games with identity-disguise encompass both The Usual Suspects (1995 –another ‘90s reference) and Tex Avery cartoons. The film has two big twists: one I saw coming from a few minutes in (and I normally never guess these things correctly, or at all), but the other is (I presume) meant to explain and justify certain glaring discrepancies and absurdities in the story line – discrepancies that didn’t register on this particular viewer at all, since everything is pitched at such a level of cartoonish stylisation, and the ‘90s-era time shifting (looking at different but simultaneous aspects of the same incident, etc.) obscures any straightforward logic in the plot.


The casting is like a Nicolas Roeg party list, high on its own heterogeneity:  Margot Robbie (from I, Tonya [2017], and also a producer here) flipping disguises every few scenes, the ubiquitous Simon Pegg (as a dying teacher of literature, no less), Dexter Fletcher (a Ritchie alumnus, but also star of the charming teen film The Rachel Papers [1989]), and … Mike Myers! He eventually gets more screen time than you might expect from his initial, heavily made-up, jokey cameo.


You have to give Terminal and its director-writer, Vaughn Stein, credit for immense effort. Every single frame, every cut, has been calculated, worked up, and cleanly executed. The film definitely has a holistic conception of framing, lighting, space and space (which cannot be said for all, or even many, imitations on the Tarantino Trail). I didn’t keep track of the entire “imaginary geography” – certainly, most if not all of it is meant to happen in and around the one train station – but the voided vistas of its architectural conception are sometimes striking, as they are exhibitionistically meant to be.


Terminal is one of those movies that manage to trade off a mounting ennui of repetition and predictability against a certain glassy-eyed-but-sticking-with-it incredulity in its spectators. It’s weird enough to get away with that. If you seek style notes on where the pop aesthetics of the screen are at, as we head toward the year 2020, it’s worth a quick look.

© Adrian Martin 18 May 2018

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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