John Cusack must have a thing for assassins. He brought one to justice in The Contract, played one in both Grosse Pointe Blank and War, Inc., and plays one again in The Numbers Station. A really good psychotherapist could have a field day analyzing these career choices. This time, Cusack portrays Emerson Kent, a CIA Black Ops agent who begins to have second thoughts about killing people, especially the innocent ones dubbed “loose ends.” To give him a break, the agency reassigns him to a remote facility, where he must protect a code operator named Katherine (Malin Akerman). Her job is to send encrypted messages to other agents in the field. Keeping an eye on her seems easy enough, but then a group of armed goons takes over the station and sends out a series of rogue codes. They wait around to kill Katherine when she arrives for her shift, since she could potentially recall their messages. With many lives at stake, Kent must save Katherine and help her figure out the assailants’ plan so that it can be foiled.
The Numbers Station doesn’t have a plot so much as it has a scenario. The film rushes Kent through his moral quandary and plops him into his new assignment almost immediately. As such, his crisis of conscience isn’t entirely convincing. Neither is his burgeoning non-romantic relationship with Katherine. There is an attempt to link them as opposite sides of the same coin — she transmits codes, not knowing what they entail, while he is all too aware of their consequences — yet it fails to result in much of a payoff because there’s such little effort expended in developing that idea. The Numbers Station seems to be in a hurry to get to the action, so it scuttles anything that might deepen our involvement in the characters or their dire situation. Everything stays surface-level, including the villains. We come to understand what their rogue codes are for, but their motivations remain hazy. Take away the lengthy opening and closing credit sequences and you have a movie that runs only about 78 minutes. Given how inherently fascinating code usage in the intelligence community is, a more detailed story with finely-tuned character development could have elevated the film into a top-tier thriller. Another half-hour might have done the trick.
While it undoubtedly falters in the larger scheme of things, there are a few satisfying elements that indicate what might have been. Cusack, for starters, is solid in his role. It doesn’t really matter that he’s played assassins before; Emerson Kent represents his most intense depiction of one to date. He’s all scowls and world-weary seriousness. Despite having achieved his earliest fame in comedies like Better Off Dead and romances such as Say Anything…, Cusack has always had an apparent dark side. When he taps into it, as he does here, he’s extremely compelling. The other successful element is the raw, gritty atmosphere provided by director Kasper Barfoed. Almost the entirety of The Numbers Station takes place in the code facility. It’s a claustrophobic environment, with little room to hide. Barfoed effectively conveys the idea that Kent and Katherine are isolated with no possibility of outside help. There’s a scene in which the two are inside the facility, listening to the sound of the intruders drilling their way through the iron doors, which is effectively creepy. Also, at several points during the movie, they listen to an audio recording of the agent and operator who perished when the intruders first ambushed the facility. A layer of suspense is added as we also listen, piecing together how the situation went down.
The Numbers Station is watchable for the things it gets right, yet it is impossible not to think that a lot of pieces to this puzzle are missing. The movie is, quite simply, too short and lacking in sufficient expansion of its central premise. You have to wonder if there was a longer cut at some point, one that might have filled in some of the gaps. We may never know. Still, Cusack is strong, and the raw vibe is often enticing. If you’re looking for a dynamic, politically-tinged thriller, you could do a lot better, but you could also do a lot worse.