The Numbers Station Movie Review
There's an interesting, timely idea in this espionage thriller, as well as adept leading actors who are able to make the most of the script's dry wit. But the film is ultimately sabotaged by a clearly low budget and lacklustre direction that fails to connect the dots of the story. Even with some clever touches, the plot is resolutely fuzzy, and since it never comes into clear focus it's difficult for us to care what happens.
The title refers to radio stations governments have used for decades to broadcast strings of numbers that are decoded by covert field operatives. One of these agents is Emerson (Cusack), whose job is to clean up messes around America. But after a nasty incident he's having second thoughts about his career, so his boss (Cunningham) reassigns him to a numbers station in rural England, where his task is to keep an eye on civilian cryptologist Katherine (Akerman). Then the station is suddenly compromised, leaving Emerson and Katherine locked inside while a gang of baddies tries to break in.
Director Barfoed gives the movie a nicely haunted quality that builds a strong sense of menace. Cusack adds his trademark cynicism to the mix as a man who resorts to brittle humour to mask his torment over the death of a teen girl on an earlier mission, made worse by the fact that Katherine is now a "loose end" here. And so is he, for that matter. Akerman is a superb foil for him, giving Katherine a spiky braininess that catches Emerson off guard: if he's falling for her, he can't kill her. Can he? These themes are thoroughly involving, even if the script never goes anywhere with them.
Instead, the plot turns into a rather pedestrian siege thriller that relies on random flashbacks to reveal what's really going on. And since almost all of the film is set in the station's underground bunker, the gratuitous shoot-outs and chase scenes take place in murky, windowless corridors. There's also the problem that many of the script's big revelations have been painfully obvious from much earlier. So it's as if the entire film has become trapped in the basement with Emerson and Katherine, and we don't really mind what happens to them. Because we know that at least we can get back into the sunshine.