TERMINAL: Featured Image

Love me a chic, talk-heavy, crime drama. I am especially vulnerable to the genre when they drench the dialogue in layers of irony and cynicism that nonetheless fails to hide the wounded heart within. By this measure, I should love TERMINAL, the new limited-release film that is far more likely to be seen—if it is seen at all—on television as it is already more widely available on VOD.

But did I love TERMINAL? Therein lies the rub.

TERMINAL: Dollar Dollar Bills, y'all
Margot Robbie, making those money moves, in a scene from TERMINAL (Courtesy of RLJE Films)

The Idea Behind TERMINAL

A series of individuals intersect and intertwine in and around an apparently active train station that, nonetheless, never sees a train coming or going. Amongst the neon lights of this empty place, we meet a pair of mismatched hitmen, Vince (Dexter Fletcher) and Alfred (Max Irons), seemingly entering the big time of murder for hire. Stuck biding their time in one of those rundown but spacious and well-appointed hotel rooms that exist in these kinds of films, they await a phone call. The man who will make the call, Mr. Franklin, stays hidden, the apparent untouchable boogieman crime boss of the area.

At some other time, former teacher Bill (Simon Pegg) is dying and seeking a train to anywhere that isn’t North. Fate puts him on the platform too late for that so he spends most of his time in the diner.

All encounter Clinton (Mike Myers), the night supervisor who takes his job VERY seriously and hassles them passive aggressively as a result. More aggressive is the waitress/dancer/wannabe hitwoman Annie (Margaret Robbie) who taunts, seduces, and engages in philosophical debates with all the players as they wander through her always-empty diner.

The storylines progress—although it is difficult to tell if they are occurring concurrently or perhaps days, weeks, or even months apart. By the end, everyone soon stands revealed to be a more complicated than they initially appeared.

TERMINAL: With eyes wide open
In TERMINAL, Simon Pegg gets taken by surprise (Courtesy of RLJE Films)

The Writing

Vaughn Stein has constructed a story of unlikely crossed paths, blind alleys, and twists that thinks it is a bit more than it is. Funnier. Smarter. Better constructed. But it is fooling itself.

There are moments the script works—mostly when Robbie and Pegg go toe-to-toe—but those moments are a little too rare to make the screenplay sing. I wouldn’t say it is a bad effort. However, almost everything here exists as an echo of a better film. Either telegraphed or not as shocking as the movie obviously thinks you will find them, the twists mostly fail to wow.

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Casting The Lead of TERMINAL

Whatever else I say about TERMINAL—before and after this—I want to make this clear. Margot Robbie is really excellent here. Tweaking her personality for every costume but never seeming like a totally different character, she commands the camera’s gaze. Actually, there are two or three moments she does seem like a different person but you’ll come to find out there is a specific reason for that.

Every actor that interacts with her on-screen is typically better in scenes with her than they are without her. It’s as though her cockeyed energy cannot be denied, damn the actor and the script. As her artifice recedes, Robbie captures the dark nastiness that animates Annie. Even as the plot grows increasingly knotty and improbable, she never says a word or gives a look that feels like a betrayal of what we already know.

Even as TERMINAL falls plods and falls apart, she remains a bubbly bizarre center. Tart-tongued, smooth as silk, and smart as a whip, there should be no doubt by this point that Robbie is a real comer. She consistently spins roles below her talent into performance cold.

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Casting the Rest of the TERMINAL Call Sheet

As alluded to above, Simon Pegg playing a downbeat as I’ve ever seen, does a great job going up against Robbie. Sarcastic and brittle, he’s every nihilist who’s secretly terrified of his own mortality you’ve ever met. The more ramped up Robbie gets, the lower he goes until he finally pops off. It is an interesting next step, performance wise, for the mostly comedic actor. Think of it as his WORLD’S END alcoholic without the interest in trying to seem upbeat.

The scenes featuring the two of them also feel like the best written. The way they shift between taunts, confessions, and flirtations feels the right level of unnatural. You can feel Pegg read Robbie as being off and a possible threat at first. Then, you can watch him slowly talk himself out of that initial impression, to his detriment.

Mike Myers, in his first semi-prominent role in a tick, seems to approach having fun but never quite get there. I’m not sure what’s missing exactly, but you can feel him reaching for something he never quite catches. His role in the climax completely deflates him. It’s a moment that calls for something — be it menace, panic, rage, or regret — but he makes none of those choices.

Dexter Fletcher and Max Irons fare the worst but do so with the least-written roles as well. Their scenes typically function as a showcase for Robbie’s performance and they just cannot seem to hang.

In tiny roles, Matthew Lewis and Thomas Turgoose are delightfully silly as hapless thugs. The movie could’ve probably stood to have a bit more of their version of incompetence, but alas, it was not to be.

TERMINAL: Cups of Joe
Margot Robbie and Max Irons always look both ways in a scene from TERMINAL (Courtesy of RLJE Films)

Filming

TERMINAL is an interesting case. It is impeccably, if improbably, set dressed. It presents a dead-end English town, where, as noted above, no other souls seem to dwell. It’s a half-in-disrepair, inner city kind of setting of unknown era. In a lot of ways, actually, it feels a little bit like a discarded set from SUCKER PUNCH. An aggressively artificial world that feels simultaneously immediately post-World War II and vaguely science fiction.

Lighting-wise as well, the film is very deliberate. Neon drenches the landscape and seeps into nearly every space. It’s almost sickening. However, the places the neon does not touch prove to be the true danger zones: the hitmen’s hotel room, a tunnel that is referred to as a bottomless hole, a CCTV room.

However, despite all this, the movie itself has a kind of passive direction. With the exception of how the camera interacts with Robbie, the movie does little to make great use of the sets or the lighting. I appreciate that it does not go over the top in terms of style, drowning us in it. However, it could definitely stand to have a bit more interesting verbal language, considering how much of what is on-screen seems to scream for it.

TERMINAL: Lady in Red
Margot Robbie knocks ’em dead in a scene from TERMINAL (Courtesy of RLJE Films)

Striking the Set

I think a good movie exists somewhere in TERMINAL. In particular, if the movie had reduced its focus to Robbie and Pegg’s diner and beyond tete-a-tete, I think it could have been a success. As noted elsewhere, their scenes pulse with a kind of disconcerting chemistry that leaves you uneasy. Even when the truth of what is going on stands revealed, the tension does not go out of either player. It might have felt more like a play or parlor movie, but I am totally on board for that kind of thing. Your mileage may vary.

However, rather than diging deeper into that conflict, the film clutters things up to reach the running time. The movie would lose nothing in terms of dramatic power or twists if the hitman storyline ended up cut entirely. The climax would need a slight rewrite, but it would be very slight at that. It’s all noise, complicating without complexity.

As a result, TERMINAL feels chaotic and overly long despite being rather straightforward when you really think about it. Moreover, it is just a little over 90 minutes, which is typically the perfect length for this kind of thing. It is all setting, little heart. Without Robbie’s live wire act, I doubt the film would have a pulse at all.

One Comment

  1. […] hand, I felt that way after watching the trailer for TERMINAL, another release from Neon. TERMINAL is probably in my bottom five films of the year. A great trailer is certainly no guarantee of results. So did LUX end up affirming my trailer […]

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