Sometimes when venturing into in a film, either big or small, hedging your expectations, or even avoiding details in their entirety can be a hidden channel to satisfaction. More than ever in today’s overexposed world (not to mention the industry of which I am a part) maintaining an iota of naïveté when if comes to movies is a burden all its own to carry.
The great Gene Siskel famously avoided all movie trailers and ventured into screenings blind, and what he saw he saw with virgin eyes. With the thriller The Numbers Station such was the situation and while an air of mystery can only go so far to elevate the material at hand, this modest production still has enough going for it to warrant a recommendation. The irony is not lost on me that I’m about to, with this review, do away with the very blindness that served my particular viewing experience but as they say, the show must go on.
The elements warranting a peak in The Numbers Station generally stem from three areas: the performance of John Cusack as a world-weary hitman, that of the lovely Malin Akerman as a chipper civilian analyst and the gloomy aesthetics of the number station where the film takes place (and where it draws its name). These highly secure facilities, remnants of conflicts long past, serve to transmit coded messages to men and women in the field. With no visual manifestation of orders and only those with the ciphers able to decipher the command, it’s a one way dictation which almost always ends in bloodshed.
The Numbers Station is reminiscent of last year’s Safe House in a number of ways, particularly the bleak, monotonous way the facility is presented and that it is nowhere near as secure as initially thought. However, that’s where the similarities end as Cusack’s Emerson and Akerman’s Katherine are trapped within the building with enemy insurgents at large. From the initial setup, the film descends into your “one location” thriller with these two trying not only to stay alive but uncover why this particular installation was targeted for siege. It’s standard order stuff but is presented capably enough to be rather enjoyable.
What is far less boilerplate, especially in fare many (myself included) would consider being of the direct-to-DVD variety is how The Numbers Station wraps things up and how un-clichéd it winds up being – not unique mind you, just not moronic and conventional. From simple things like avoiding an affection-driven dynamic between the two protagonists to sidestepping things that, well, I don’t really want to say were bypassed. It’s not that the film hinted at banal, hackneyed things to come but rather that it’s just how these types of movies play out. The fact it didn’t go in those directions was a pleasant surprise to say the least.
Back to the visuals which I inferred were a significant asset, those employed by The Numbers Station are welcomingly dour and dreary even when the maze of dimly lit corridors does get a tad repetitive. What I enjoyed most was that instead of emitting a sense of claustrophobia it instead oozes dread – not that the walls are closing in but rather this is the place these characters will die. Even the exterior of the station looks like a graveyard.
Likewise, the performances from these two leads is deserving of some level of praise even when the writing that shapes these characters is superficial to say the least (and I won’t even go into the further mounting conventions associated with an assassin questioning his morals). Especially when a good portion of the running time is dedicated to the interaction between these two refugees, we should get something meatier than Emerson breaking out your standard-order, dossier-brand psychoanalysis.
But I digress, as Cusack in particular surprised me simply because he wasn’t on autopilot and at some turns even emoted more than the material demanded him too. He sells the conventional character and how he plays off of the naïve, sprightly Katherine generally works well. While she in particular may exude a tad too much zest and isn’t given much to do in the way of ass-kicking, her glowing presence is welcome nevertheless.
It’s somewhat unfortunate that the welcome elements swirl amongst mediocre writing and pacing issues more times than can be overlooked, but some slick kills and the aforementioned avoidance of over-the-top genre tropes still makes The Numbers Station better than your average bargain bin thriller.
Assembled from competent elements and featuring more dedicated performances than one might expect, The Numbers Station is still a tad too nondescript to leave much of an impact.