There’s something to be said for the art of subtlety, and recently many films have adopted the ideology that ‘less is more’, opting to often show rather than tell and littering their work with subtext. The feature length debut from prolific assistant director Vaughn Stein Terminal is not one of these however, and often laments in its bombastic and over-the-top attitude in a film which, had it been released in the 90s, would have been a sure-fire hit across Blockbuster stores around the world.
Terminal follows the seedy undertakings of a group of individuals within a neo-noir-tinged station terminal across a series of nights. There’s the double-act of Vince and Alfred (Dexter Fletcher & Max Irons, respectively), two hitmen who agree to a job from the mysterious ‘Mr. Franklyn’ which requires them to stay within the confines of the terminal itself, there’s Bill (Simon Pegg), a terminally-ill English teacher looking for some kind of means to an end, and finally the station’s janitor, uh, I mean ‘Night Manager’ (Mike Myers), a strange man who wanders about the place spurting the rules of the terminal to anyone he comes across. All three stories intersect thanks to the presence of Margot Robbie’s Annie, a devilishly-sly waitress in the café of the terminal, who seems to have her fingers in so many pies that it’s often difficult to catch up. What follows is of course a series of double-crosses, heavy-handed metaphors and conversations about pathetic fallacy, washed out with shot-after-shot of neon-drenched despair prompting myself to question whether of not Stein had recently taken up a rather passionate interest in the work of Nicolas Winding Refn.
It’s certainly not unpleasant to look at, that’s for sure. Cinematographer Christopher Ross bathes in the neon reds, yellows and greens that soak up every inch of screen time they can to almost mask the bare-bones of the terminal itself. It’s a monster of a location, with hulking interiors and silos, twisting staircases and illuminated droning corridors which Robbie blends perfectly into. She’s clearly having the time of her life playing Annie and luring individuals to do her bidding in a variety of costumes and wigs like a mixture between Marilyn Monroe and Annie Wilkes. The glee her character has when Pegg’s Bill calls her insane is palpable, and it’s a perfect example of why Terminal often falls flat. The script (also by Stein) has no interest in being mysterious, instead wear its influences on its sleeve, bashing you over the head with reference after reference to Alice in Wonderland until you become frustrated at every quote taken from it. Robbie is the personification of the script’s shortcomings, instead of displaying how her character is insane we’re just told repeatedly how mad she is and how much she loves it. The film has no interest in whether or not you’re up for the ride, it will drag you along regardless.
Dexter Fletcher’s cockney hitman is no better either, proudly regurgitating his loathing of ‘Bottle Blonde’ (Robbie) as she fires flirtatious banter back and forth with his ‘Handsome’ sidekick Alfred (Irons). He’s a character ripped straight from a British gangster film, whilst Irons plays a cardboard cut-out of a man who becomes infatuated with Annie despite a host of warning signs. The inevitable double-cross is apparent from the get go, and it’s a moment the film embarrassingly savours as if it’s earnt. Myers too is just about bizarrely watchable as the janitor, displaying either a caricature of the mentally-ill or the slyly intelligent (and I’m prone to believe one more than the other) to the point where upon his first snippet of dialogue with Pegg I thought it was all a joke. The hitmen, the janitor and Robbie are cartoon characters who wouldn’t feel out of place in an amalgamation of Sin City and Cool World. Simon Pegg is the only one who walks away from this film with a shred of dignity, though his moments of which are small amidst some larger-than-life ramblings about the futility of existence. He spends the majority of the film within the café alongside Robbie as the two have flashes of chemistry but sadly nothing more than that. His segment of the story is the one that seemed to work best; his character toys with the idea of suicide alongside Annie in order to beat his oncoming fate. It’s a familiar, yet still successful way of deepening his character, though the scenes between Pegg and Robbie are often drawn out and overstay their welcome.
Terminal is Margot Robbie’s film for sure though, and Annie is a more successful Harley Quinn than David Ayer ever got, even if she still seems stiff and one-dimensional. As a co-producer, she obviously had faith in the material, though whether it be the elaborate and dazzling costume design of Annie or the script itself remains to be seen. I found myself making comparisons to Ryan Gosling’s Lost River multiple times throughout, though where Gosling’s film succeeded more as an experimental story, Terminal lacks such a story to back it up. At its base level, Terminal is a series of vignettes: one third comedy sketch, one third noir detective melodrama, one third existential monologue. It’s often a nightmare of tone. This is especially apparent as the film wraps up various plot points using Saw-esque styles of jarring edits, throughout the film alluding to an overseer (the mysterious ‘Mr. Franklyn’) watching over the events of the film through CCTV cameras in an unknown location. Stein embellishes in the use of flashbacks and heavy exposition during pivotal moments, rendering much of what you see and learn pointless across the 90-minute runtime in an effort to perhaps seem nonlinear and intelligent. It’s the equivalent of deus-ex-machina when you flat out tell your audience character motivations that contrast everything you’ve been told throughout the film within the last fifteen minutes, and it’s a move that left a sour taste in my mouth after my viewing.
With this in mind however, I found myself oddly intrigued by the whole ordeal and don’t consider my time with Terminal a waste. Visually, Stein uses a checklist of directorial tricks to try and add a layer of thematic coherence to everything, even down to using dutch angles alongside important snippets of dialogue. Location changes and neat visual transitions lead the viewer into hypothetical situations rather nicely, and for a short period of time within the film’s second act I found myself wrapped up in the little world of the terminal and even began to make comparisons to Wonderland (though I feel like if I let Stein know it worked for a brief moment I’d be spurring him on too much). For every bright-red ‘down the rabbit hole’ strip club there was a flash of literary knowledge dropped into a piece of dialogue or a humorous encounter with a pair of inexperienced muggers (Matthew Lewis & Thomas Turgoose); a spark of intelligence against wave after wave of white noise, but it’s not enough to fully recommend.
Terminal is a schlock thriller that should have been released two decades ago to a market which would have lapped it up. There’s definitely an audience for it, and at times it’s entertaining enough to ease through its brief runtime, but a flurry of odd filmmaking decisions, bland performances and bizarre script choices stop it from being anything more than a mediocre experiment.