FILM REVIEW – TERMINAL. With Margot Robbie, Mike Myers, Simon Pegg, Max Irons, Dexter Fletcher. Written and directed by Vaughn Stein. Unrated. 90 minutes.
There are some movies that come along that fairly scream “cult film.” These are movies that leave most viewers disappointed or baffled or indifferent yet create a fervent response among some people who will want to watch it again and again. TERMINAL is ripe for such discovery.
In an unnamed city (although shot in Budapest, Hungary), Annie (Margot Robbie) is engaged in a complex game where she is going to turn competing assassins against each other in order to gain control over them. Robbie, who has proved she is as talented as she is stunning, plays a variety of roles here as she manipulates the various men in the story to get what she wants, including waitress, stripper, penitent, and nurse.
The men believe they are on top of the situation, but they are fools. There’s a dying teacher (Simon Pegg), two killers for hire (Max Irons, Dexter Fletcher), and a seemingly innocuous janitor (Mike Myers). All will be revealed to have onion-like layers to their personalities, proving that their surface identities barely scratch the surface of who they really are, and Annie plays each in turn for reasons that slowly become clear over the course of the film.
Vaughn Stein, who has served as assistant director on several movies, makes his feature directorial debut here – having also written the script – and he offers style to spare. Drawing on fashions and décor from numerous eras, he creates an atmospheric locus for his story that is at once familiar and utterly bizarre. Is this a noirish past or a dystopian future? It’s never really explained.
This is where he’s going to lose a lot of viewers. It’s not so much that the story is hard to follow but that it proceeds at its own pace and will leave many scratching their heads. What is going on here? Yet by the end, when all the various plot threads have paid off, it’s clear he was not throwing things out at random but had an end goal in mind from the start.
If the film works, it is due to a combination of his visual stylizations and his ability to attract a strong and unusual cast. Robbie, who was one of the film’s producers, gets to play a variety of roles, and constantly upends our expectations as to where things are going. She may have gotten an Oscar nomination for “I, Tonya,” but this is a film that really showcases her range.
Simon Pegg is similarly complex (although not in as many permutations) as the schoolteacher with a terminal illness who is not exactly what he seems. In addition, the film also offers up Mike Myers, in his first live-action feature film role in nine years, playing a janitor who is as multi-layered as everyone else we meet. Indeed, when his character first appears you may be inclined to dismiss him without realizing who it is. This is a movie where viewers ignore things at their peril.
And that’s why “Terminal” is likely destined for cult film status. It demands much of the viewer, and even the most attentive movie watcher may not feel the payoff is worth it. For those willing to go along for the ride, it not only has a must see turn by Robbie but may be the debut of a director who will be dazzling us in the future.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.