For all Terminal’s style and flash, writer-director Vaughn Stein’s meandering tale of assassins and fatefully crossed paths lays out such a confusing narrative that three quarters of the way through, I couldn’t have passed a quiz about the characters’ goals or why they were doing anything that they were doing. From what I could gather, an assassin (Margot Robbie) promises that she can kill her competition, and then a bunch of people somehow connected to all this end up at an all-night diner outside a train station. But time jumps back and forth, so the story could be taking place three weeks earlier or in the present. Mike Myers shows up as an elderly British janitor, and the people in the diner talk a lot — endlessly — and the assassin for some reason waits tables. Bear with me. I also don’t know what’s going on, and I saw it.
Despite the story’s dire incoherence, Robbie’s reasoning for taking on the lead role of Annie (an assassin, waitress and exotic dancer) seems obvious: How often do female stars get the opportunity to play a multifaceted villain? But Stein’s direction — which favors harsh, blinding backlighting and funky Dutch angles over visibility of performers’ faces — creates a vast distance between actor and viewer. The first-time director is done no favors by a script, his own, that's riddled with clichés; This is the second film I’ve seen this week that features a character aiming a gun at someone, then saying “boom” instead of shooting. And I would be eternally grateful if no other man ever writes the line “leaving marks on little girls’ panties.”
It seems Stein wants to mimic the kinetic flair of Edgar Wright. He even cast longtime Wright collaborator Simon Pegg as diner customer and schoolteacher-with-a-terminal-diagnosis Bill. But Stein mistakes successive frantic editing for purposeful action and refuses to allow cinematographer Christopher Ross to simply shoot an actor — any actor — head-on. At one point, I pleaded with the film, “Stop shooting this scene from overhead!” and “Don’t cut while people are talking!”
Compounding the manic energy of the editing is dialogue that muses mostly on long-winded ideas that don’t lend themselves to any kind of visual representation. By that I mean not what’s known as see-and-say dialogue, where a director turns the camera to an object or person, and then a character notices that object or person and makes a comment, thereby reacting to their environment. With that kind of dialogue, a narrative is driven by that interaction between character and setting. But in Terminal, the settings seem to be designed simply for their cool, noir comic book style, not for how the characters will live in them.
The most successful scene comes when Annie-as-waitress and Bill sit at a diner table, talking about how Bill might kill himself before his mysterious illness takes his life. While they’re talking, the walls of the diner are pulled away using movie magic and suspension of disbelief, and we see these possibilities — getting hit by a car, pushed in front of a train, etc. — acted out in the space behind the actors as they chat. There are minimal cuts, the actors are vibing off each other and the characters seem part of the world they inhabit rather than just posed against it. Now if only that was the whole movie.