TERMINAL: Margot Robbie’s Adventures In A (Criminal) Wonderland
Inspired by Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Terminal is visually and thematically strong, despite its over-simple script and occasional over-acting - all in all a promising directorial debut for Vaughn Stein.
Terminal weaves visual and textual themes throughout – leaving a dark, knotted web to try and understand. Vaughn Stein’s directorial debut is ironically titled Terminal, and although Stein has a long history working on Hollywood films – he’s worked as secondary or tertiary assistant directors for films such as World War Z and Beauty and the Beast – it seems as though this film represents the genesis of a novel style of film-making – or the resurgence of an old one.
Terminal follows a group of strangers in a train terminal, amongst them Margot Robbie as a waitress in a quiet all-night café, Simon Pegg as a teacher with a terminal illness, and Dexter Fletcher as a hitman training his apprentice. The focus of the film is the web of events that ties these characters together, and attempts by characters to untangle them. It is a hectic – although sometimes confusing – ride, but Stein laces the film with enough visual and textual symbolism to make the ride worthwhile.
The basis of the film is the time-old tale of hitmen undertaking a job, which seems to be a staple of first-time directors and writers. The weakest part of Terminal is this basic plot, dragged further down by the writing and acting which laces most scenes with an absence of believability, as though a group of young children wrote the film in the simulacra image that children have of tropes like hitmen. The film is saved, however, by Stein’s intelligent use of themes and tropes, which create a better story than the literal story of the film.
The entire film is framed through neo-noir aesthetics, à la Roger Deakins’ work on Blade Runner 2049 or his work with the Coen brothers. Director of photography Christopher Ross lights dark or dingy rooms only with the piercing neon glare of signs or lights. When characters are alone, it emphasises their solitude – when there are multiple characters, the light seems intent on ripping them apart.
Similarly darkness is used in some shots to emphasise the mysteries and conflicted identities of characters, using similar techniques to classic noir films such as Double Indemnity or Out of the Past. It is clear Stein recognises that cinematography defines many films of the genre, and his attempts to emulate it are as equally successful as his attempts to modernise it with the aforementioned penetrating neon.
Stein also clearly found inspiration in the archetypes and tropes of noir films – or, more accurately, in the dismantling of them. Robbie’s character is a biting combination of the femme fatale image and the damsel in distress, and her relationships with the various characters brings out blends of the characters to different degrees. The character that would best fit the typical description of a noir hero is Fletcher’s old, misogynist, rabid dog of a character whilst other characters, such as those of Pegg, Max Irons and Mike Myers, all twist typical archetypes in novel ways.
Like a noir film it’s clear all the characters presented know each other, or have some hidden secrets, and the slow discovery of these people and their links is half the joy of the film. The other half is the skilful presentation of these secrets, and the tension created in scenes where two different characters have different amounts of information is impressive for a first-time director.
Alice’s Adventures in Stein-land
From an early off-hand comment about mad hatters, to scenes near the end discussing the book’s style and message, it’s clear that the themes and symbolism of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and to an extent its sequel Through the Looking Glass, are used as narrative shorthand throughout Terminal.
Many of the characters and locations are defined by their relationships to characters from the books – from Robbie’s character, whose similarities to a character are an interesting twist, to clever location details such as two characters beginning their inclusion in the plot at a club called Le Lapin Blanc (The White Rabbit). Through the majority of the film the references to the book are subtle details that add gravitas and detail to scenes, and although the links become a little too heavy-handed towards the end of the film, Stein generally shows a deft touch in his application and combination of textual details.
When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are used in popular culture – which they are a little too much – it can often be used as a shorthand for ‘madness’ or ‘insanity’ in characterising situations or characters in an overs-simple way. For the most part Stein avoids this thematic hole, and the aforementioned white rabbit symbolism is the best example of this.
At times, the references to the book are the sanest aspects of the film – an eclectic chronology, and under-written and over-acted roles sometimes confuse proceedings, and simply remembering “we’re all down the rabbit-hole,” can be the only way to keep on top of things.
The end of the train line
The idea of the “terminal” is explored in every nook and cranny of the film. It takes place almost entirely inside one train terminal – albeit the abandoned, dark and deceitful terminal of the early hours. The film is clearly shot in a warehouse, and the fact that the set designers didn’t do too much work to change it from such actually benefits the tone of the film. From the cinematography to the sparse music, the terminal is presented as the last stop on a line that nobody is riding.
Another meaning of the word “terminal” is that of the end, and this idea of finality or extremity is particularly prevalent in the characterisation of Pegg’s character, a teacher suffering with a terminal illness. His explorations of death, and the end of his life, echo throughout the film, from the exploits of Fletcher and Irons’ characters to an interesting detail in the last few frames of Myers’ final shot.
Robbie’s character has the most significant terminus, with a minor plot twist that is set up well enough throughout the film, but doubles down on some of the Wonderland and noir-esque elements of the film. Her change throughout the film, coupled with the anachronic structure of the film, defines her as the terminal moraine of the plot.
Terminal is likely a divisive film – for some, the carefully constructed and stylised visuals and tone of the film will be entertaining and engaging, yet others will likely have a hard time getting beyond the fairly over-simple script, and some weak overacting.
As a patchwork of interesting visuals and themes, however, Terminal is clearly not the end but the beginning of an interesting career.
Which is more important in a film – the subtext, or the text itself?
Terminal is was released in the United States on May 11 2018, and will be released in the United Kingdom on June 6.
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