My rating: *****
This wonderful and underrated science fiction film was directed by Vincenzo Natali who directed the earlier better known Cube. The original title for the film was Company Man but was renamed Cypher when the film-makers found there was another film of the same name.
Cypher means a person of no influence, zero or nothing. It is essentially a film about identity, the homogeneity of modern life and rather surprisingly a love story, although this is not apparent until the end. The satisfyingly convoluted plot by Brian King involves a colourless corporate employee Morgan Sullivan (Jeremy Northam) who agrees to become a spy with the pseudonym Jack Thursby for his company Digicorps who are locked in a battle for corporate domination with another megacompany called Suncorps systems. In a plot twist we find that the boring conventions that Sullivan is supposed to be secretly recording around the country are in fact brainwashing sessions in which he is given a new identity as an another equally colourless company man also living in bland suburbia trapped in an identical loveless marriage. Along the way Sullivan meets a beautiful woman Rita Foster (Lucy Liu) who helps him through these convolutions. We also find out about a mysterious super spy with the intriguing name of Sebastian Rooks.
The production design and art direction in this film is outstanding. Colours are carefully and subtly arranged throughout the film. The plays of light and shadow over the characters and their faces is beautiful to watch. The sets are also wonderfully futuristic but redolent of the 1950s and 1960s. The story takes place in a futuristic retro environment where it is permanently the 1950s, but technology has rendered that bland comformity into an even more repressive and homogenised environment. The film begins in a virtual monochrome with gradual subtle departures like a book about the South Sea islands owned by the main character and a glass of single malt whiskey being poured. Walter Mitty like, Sullivan creates a fantasy about himself in his new character as Jack Thursby as having been born in the South Sea islands and being a lover of fine whisky, cigarettes and golf.
What is so satisfying is that at the end it turns out that the extravagant fantasy is actually the reality. Sullivan is in fact Sebastian Rooks who has changed himself via brainwashing into the corporate man in order to steal a piece of data from a high security vault. We speculate about what piece of data could warrant such extravagant preparation and risk. Then we learn at the end that it is a file on his lover Rita Foster with the directive ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’. As they sail away on their yacht he tosses the disk – the only copy of the data – into the sea.
The film closes on a beautifully lit and framed closeup of Sebastian Rooks looking utterly different from the bland Morgan Sullivan. The shot is underscored with electronic lounge music that is quite different and just as right as the austere music that accompanies the rest of the film. It is a brief shot that I can watch again and again just to enjoy its sheer enigma and mystery. As Natali says in the director’s commentary, we can never know who anybody is, not even ourselves.
Incidentally, the sense of dream like strangeness and displacement that the film creates is helped by the fact that although set in the USA, this is a Canadian film and only one of the actors Lucy Liu is American. Jeremy Northam is British and the director, crew and all the other actors are Canadian.
Although there has been some controversy about the ending of the film and the contents of the disk, in my view it is the most satisfying ending possible and completely makes the whole film, for me at least. Rooks’ quixotic and anarchic gesture of romantic love is the perfect counterpoint to the ruthless greed of the corporations and completely negates what they stand for. Further to this, reality is not the usual cold shock of the boring mundane, but the fantasy of colour, luxury and freedom.
My one criticism of the film would be Rita’s removal towards the end, of her red and beautifully styled short wig to reveal her long black hair. This reduces her character to ordinariness just as Morgan Sullivan remembers himself as the very exotic Sebastian Rooks. I would have far preferred Rita Foster to retain her cool stylishness to match his.
Watching this film the first time around one certainly doesn’t see the final twist coming. On a second viewing of the film, one can appreciate it as a love story. Jeremy Northam’s subtle transformation from a colourless and unattractive cypher to an enigmatic, dangerous and attractive man is quite an acting tour de force.