Terminal (2018)

Terminal first published by RealCrime Magazine

“There is a place like no other on Earth, a land full of wonder, mystery and danger. Some say, to survive it, you need to be as mad as a Hatter – which luckily, I am.”

Writer/director Vaughn Stein’s feature debut Terminal opens with  these words, uttered in a strange echoey voiceover by femme fatale Annie (Margot Robbie, who also served as the film’s producer). The words, like everything that ‘bottle blonde’ Annie says, are duplicitous – for the film’s neon-lit stylised world is all at once precisely like nowhere else, and yet instantly recognisable as being like every sleazily noirish city condensed into one metropolitan nightmare. 

This urban demimonde, where everyone speaks in an English accent (even non-English actors like Robbie and Mike Myers), is in fact played by Budapest, so that the place itself seems to be in disguise as much as many of the characters. Here, whether in the near-deserted train terminal where Annie runs the End of the Line Cafe, or in the club La Lapin Blanche where she doubles as a stripper, artifice reigns – for we are ‘down the rabbit hole’, in a hall of mirrors where every character is a stock archetype, and every element a reference to another film or book. “Let the games begin,” says the mysterious Franklyn, echoing a line from Saw (2004) even as his own film also involves terminal illness and violence manipulated from the sidelines. The station’s limping night supervisor (Myers) repeatedly whistles “Oh Danny Boy” to himself, evoking Miller’s Crossing (1991) with its similar gangland eccentricity and mannered dialogue. There are allusions to The Usual Suspects (1995), to Sucker Punch (2011), and of course to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Annie’s ‘favourite book’ which organises and inspires the events of Terminal.

In this textured, textual environment, dying ex-teacher Bill (Simon Pegg), double-crossing contract killers Vince (Dexter Fletcher) and Alfred (Max Irons), and reclusive kingpin Franklyn all fall under Annie’s spell, as she works the angles of an elaborate, twisty revenge whose precise nature is only gradually revealed, as though in a striptease. 

Beautifully designed and lit, yet ultimately as hollow as the old ventilation shaft at the station’s centre, Terminal has nowhere really to go once its events have been set in motion and its trajectory has become clear – but it perhaps works best as a tale of female empowerment in a world where women like Annie can all too easily be reduced to objects of abuse and exploitation. Annie may be ogled and pawed by the many men around her, but here, right from the start, Annie has everyone right where she wants them, and hammers out the story her own way. 

strap: Vaughn Stein’s feature debut is a neo-noir tale of revenge and female empowerment filtered through the fantasy matrix of Alice in Wonderland

© Anton Bitel