Vaughn Stein's debut is an incoherent and messy attempt at Neo-noir which has no substance and an exhausting amount of style, resulting in an experience so nonsensical it feels as though you dreamt it.
“Forgive me father, for I have sinned,” says a voice caught somewhere in the Indian Ocean, between East London and Sydney. This voice is to be our enigmatic femme fatale, a mystery to the point of complete bewilderment who spends more time quoting Lewis Carroll than speaking any actual sense. And if it is Carroll’s Wonderland to which Terminal aims to allude, it is successful only in leading you to wonder what on earth is happening and why anyone chose to make it.
In a dark and ambiguous city, somewhere between London and nowhere, the lives of four characters “intertwine” after meeting a mysterious and dangerous female figure (Margot Robbie). So far, so Neo-noir.
It is a fruitless task to even attempt a more fulfilling description of Terminal‘s plot, with its narrative feeling as disorientating as a tumble down Alice’s referenced rabbit hole. Some might argue this comes down to its influences; drawing from the ambiguous approach of classic Film Noir The Big Sleep and the hyper stylistic flourishes of Nicolas Winding Refn, a perplexing labyrinth may have been intentional. However, Vaughn Stein’s Terminal isn’t so much a labyrinth as it is a simple puzzle with most of the pieces missing.
The first of the four characters, played by Simon Pegg, is by far the film’s most interesting. A retired English teacher who has recently discovered he has a terminal illness, Bill contemplates beating death to it and ending his own life before his disease gets the chance. An intriguing conceit for a noir lead, had first time director Vaughn Stein not chosen to implement a throw away twist with little hint nor logical development towards its forthcoming. The same goes for the rest of Terminal‘s arcs, exploring very little within them before an attempt at a shock reveal delivers more on groans than gasps.
Pegg, it also should be noted, provides the best performance of the stacked cast. Despite having very little to work with, Terminal offers his darkest role to date and reflects substantial range. Mike Myers meanwhile, whose turn involves the cartoonish portrayal of a train station janitor, provides evidence of nobody knowing exactly what the film is or wants to be, whilst Dexter Fletcher and Max Irons rein it in as your average British hit-man archetypes who could easily have just wandered onto the wrong set in search for Guy Ritchie. And, if they are lost, Margot Robbie certainly is. Off the back of her deserved Oscar contending performance in I, Tonya, she can here be seen battling with London-isms; her accent the vocal equivalent of English and Australian passports being shredded and haphazardly stitched back together.
Positives can only be caught briefly in the glimmer of some kind of artistic intent as well as the unmitigated oddness of the experience. Stein’s oneiric vision doesn’t come without undelivered potential; presenting very slight essences of Carax’s Holy Motors and the nostalgia of Neo-noir pastiche through Christopher Ross’ cinematography. The result, while trying to comprehend its nonsensical nature, is the feeling that you may have dreamt the whole thing.
At times, Stein’s debut fumbles toward the unwatchable. An exhausting expression of style over substance to the point that substance is overlooked altogether, Terminal is a neon drenched, soaked and dyed portrayal of both nothing and too much. It doesn’t know what it is, and neither does anyone watching. If Alice were to have fallen down the rabbit hole and been met with Robbie’s snake embellished tights and her attempt at an English accent, she probably would have made an attempt to crawl back up it. Terminal exists on no greater level than its surface, and, if Stein is given the opportunity to step behind the camera again, he may learn that a rabbit hole only goes as deep as the rabbit chooses to dig it.
Terminal (2018), directed by Vaughn Stein, is distributed in the UK by Arrow Films, Certificate 15.