Home Video Hovel- The Numbers Station, by Tyler Smith
Kasper Barfoed’s The Numbers Station is a well-made, effective, but ultimately conventional thriller. There’s really not much more to say about it beyond that. I found it interesting while I was watching, but I get the feeling that it’s not the type of film that is really going to stick with me.
And that’s okay, really. Not every movie is meant to shake us to our core. Some are just out to tell a mildly interesting story, distract us for about 90 minutes, then just send us on our way. If a film has this ambition, and then achieves it, who are we to demand it be more? In reality, you could do a lot worse than a stripped-down espionage thriller that is eager to please. There are plenty of movies that aim much higher, but fall far shorter, and that can be an immensely frustrating viewing experience.
The story is very simple. John Cusack plays Emerson, a CIA assassin whose conscience is starting to bother him. His supervisor transfers him to a quiet “numbers station” in rural England. This is one of several secret stations around the world that send encrypted codes to field agents, telling them their next target. This station isn’t much more than a high tech underground bunker, in which Emerson sits and waits for the encryption specialist, Katherine, to send out her codes, then escorts her off-site.
Katherine thinks that Emerson is there to protect her, but that isn’t entirely true. He is there to protect the code. Should the wrong people- terrorists, mercenaries, etc.- gain access to the code, they could actually use the CIA’s assassin program for their own ends. This would be disastrous, so, if there is even the slightest chance that the code fall into the wrong hands, Emerson’s job is to eliminate the one person that knows how to transmit the code. He’s not thrilled at the prospect of having to kill Katherine, but he’s done much more than that over the years, and, as they say, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
Of course, it’s only a matter of time before the station is attacked and the code is potentially compromised. Emerson gets the order to eliminate Katherine. The rest of the film consists of Emerson and Katherine trying to figure out what the villains are up to, as Emerson struggles with his own conscience.
The film is at its best when dealing with the cold, hard reality of Emerson’s job. He is supposed to kill people, so that others might be saved. Usually his targets are military in nature, but sometimes not. Katherine has not only done nothing to deserve death, but actually entered into her contract wanting to serve her country, never knowing that her country considered her expendable for the greater good.
John Cusack is the perfect actor to play this sort of struggle. He has made a career out of playing conflicted sociopaths; killers with hearts of gold. He is certainly in his comfort zone here, but I never got the impression that he was phoning in his performance. In fact, he seems particularly invested in the character, imbuing him with a sad, tired cynicism. As he processes his orders, watching Katherine desperately scramble to help the country that has just ordered her death, we see his heart breaking. He may have the ability to kill, but he certainly doesn’t have the heart for it anymore.
The action and suspense is handled adequately. It helps that most of the film takes place in the isolated numbers station. There are no windows, which not only means no escape routes, but no connection to the outside world. There is no way to call for help. We can’t even see if it’s day or night. This creates a genuine feeling of claustrophobia and tension. We know that there are people eager to get into the station, but that doesn’t mean that some aren’t already here. And, if they’re here, there’s only so many places they could be.
The biggest weakness in the film is the script. Perhaps it is a problem inherent in a chamber piece thriller, but there is a lot of expository dialogue. Whether it’s the characters just coming out and telling us about themselves and each other, or trying to dumb down the complexities of encryption, the script is more than a little clunky at times.
However, Kasper Barfoed uses darkness, flashbacks, and an eerie score to create a genuine atmosphere of dread. I’m unfamiliar with Barfoed’s other work, but I feel like he is a man to watch. Here, he was able to take a fairly mundane script and turn it into a mostly-effective thriller that kept my interest. While I was watching it, that is.