Number Stations are supposed underground spy labyrinths where a small stock of willing employees deal in unsigned messages, dropping orders to surface-level agents via a series of impossible to decrypt digits. It is thrilling work that involves, well, sitting around and mouthing numbers carefully into a microphone. So in retrospect, no, it isn’t particularly exciting.
Into this rather sedate workday comes monotone John Cusak, fiddling with a gun and demoted after being unable to cope with the unexpected assassination of a young teenager. Alcoholism, by default, equals instant character definition.
Cusak’s Emerson is paired with a station operator, Katherine (Malin Akerman) as they follow routine and rote protocol. After a weekend off, the pair return to admirable desk jobs to find the facility under fire, a sniper taking pot shots and cars exploding. Fire and loud noises distract from languishing narratives.
Numbers Station goal is growth, Emerson turning from his sharpened killer state to a compassionate leader who finds something worthwhile in Katherine. The other side shows Katherine dropping her naivety towards the eventualities of the business and gaining perception as to what these codes do.
That is the flow of tightly wound thriller, capped under 90-minutes with its wasted time spent following Cusak around concrete hallways, gun drawn. There is a lot of that in Numbers Station, actors keeping low, creeping around, and fearing for their lives. Little of it is exceptionally taut, mundane ground work action that limits the appeal of spy work. Perceived mystery of a Numbers Station is enthralling; their execution is not.
Budgets keep the film contained to a handful of hallways, use of the England location spit out in establishing shots before cramming the script underground to a place that could exist anywhere. Scripting highs bite and pull on the viewer, asking for attention before throwing away most of the material on clumsily executed flashbacks. A set-up for mouthy villain Max (Richard Brake) is crimped before the actor can start, and messaging regarding the worth of human life is tacked onto the final act,
Cusak’s dry, one-note performance fits here, and Akerman’s perkiness lends Numbers Station countering leads. One is a veteran of the system, the other clueless. Their role reversal, if incomplete by film’s end, is suffocated by enclosed walls and flickering lights of a dying government facility built for a song.
Captured on the Arri Alexa, this AVC encode from RLJ is difficult to decode, placing blame on the inconsistently low bitrate encode or the bulky noise of the source material. Numbers Station flips between resolved images bathing in fidelity and those accosted by noise. Wild deviations occur between edits, in close, or in medium shots. Panning views of the England countryside are awash in blocks more akin to DVD than Blu-ray.
Photography is not noisy so much as it is under pressure from digital remnants. There is no expectation of clarity. Hints of noise produce a scattered, somewhat tense appearance. What Numbers Station is doing breaks down the visuals into swarming pits of detail-robbing artifacts. Soft focus and shimmering faces are blasted by the garish quality.
Someone in post production splurged on orange and teal hues, although the effect on flesh tones is negligible. Apparently, government construction requests the use of Hollywood-themed lighting in their offices. Instead, skin is washed out, pasty and lifeless. Contrast will eat away at hues to a point where faces appear ghostly in certain instances. Lighting is intentionally low, although sources provided work overtime to blast scenes with concentrated brightness.
Black levels are inoffensive if never reaching for true depth. Despite this, blacks have no concerns with crushing shadow detail, a handful of shots appearing as floating heads peering into a computer screen. For a new release on a notably capable camera, the end result is blindsiding.
Countering insufficient video is hearty DTS-HD audio, with exhibited strength on the low-end. Substantial push for explosions, gunshots, and droning musical notes weigh on the subwoofer. Numbers Station never feels as if it is losing ground with its balance, and enjoys perking up when the film pushes away from chatter.
Without limping behind, mixing portrays a claustrophobic interior with reaching dialogue that extends into the rears. Position work may fall behind – gunshots lack specificity – but still envelopes the sound field to match the locale. For work on a budget, this is superior material.
A 15-minute making of is the only bonus feature included on the disc, a general plot and character recap, including a clearly bored Cusak.
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