Matt Damon and Emily Blunt star in a sophisticated, elegant thriller of predestination.
There’s an old proverb, certainly hundreds of years old and probably British, that begins with a horseshoe losing a nail and ultimately leading, through a cascade of dire consequences, to the collapse of an entire kingdom. Such small twists of fate – seemingly random yet maddeningly well- and ill-timed, holding the potential for disaster or joy – lie at the intelligent heart of The Adjustment Bureau. Helmed by first-time director George Nolfi (who also adapted the Philip K. Dick short story), the film trusts its audience to reach their own conclusions and rewards their patience with genuine suspense and characterization of an elegant, old-school Hollywood flavor. Until its last few moments, when the script veers into a pat ending, it’s one of the year’s best films.
Matt Damon stars as David Norris, a New York congressman whose hard-partying past (which fortunately does not involve Twitter) has cost him a Senate race in a bitter upset. Moments before his concession speech he meets Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), a free-spirited woman who’s crashed a party elsewhere in the labyrinthine hotel. The two have an immediate, undeniable romantic chemistry, their flirtation relaxed and smart without seeming forced or purely sexual: more than simply attracted, they’re fascinated by one another. Norris has to make that speech, however, and thanks to Elise’s inspiration he gives one that revitalizes his political fortunes.
But forces are literally conspiring to keep them apart: Norris has been watched since childhood by “adjusters,” men in mid-20th Century clothing who periodically fine-tune reality on behalf of a vaguely defined “Chairman” who lays out intricate plans for everyone on Earth. Norris and Elise must not be together, the group’s leader (John Slattery) explains, because their togetherness violates the plan intended for Norris. (The Chairman, we learn later, wants him to be President.) When Norris intrudes on the adjustment team tweaking the venture capital firm where he works, the team makes him swear to not pursue Elise again. Confused and frightened, he agrees.
The film jumps ahead three years, to when a chance encounter brings the two would-be lovers together again. But the adjustment team is right there to intervene, even as one of their number (Anthony Mackie) decides to work on the couple’s behalf. Norris’ attempt to reach Elise through narrow Manhattan streets, while the adjusters manipulate reality and circumstance around him, makes for an unusual but gripping chase sequence that’s breathlessly staged and handsomely photographed.
Comparisons to last year’s far murkier Inception are unavoidable, but where that film sacrificed plot for spectacle Nolfi’s script and direction keep emphasis on character – particularly Norris’, but also allowing Elise ample screen time to develop into something more than the object of Norris’ obsession. She’s a well-rounded character in her own right, deserving of happiness and even sometimes pitiable: suffering without benefit of knowledge of the adjuster’s machinations, much of her life through the story is lonely and frustrated. (How many of us have wondered, sometime in our life, if vast forces weren’t keeping us alone? Elise becomes our proxy for that dilemma.)
The two leads, as mentioned above, deliver performances rich with maturity and depth. Damon the actor has virtually grown up on camera since his earliest appearances in the 1990s, and here he’s able to convey confidence and vulnerability without coming across as showy, and to his and Nolfi’s credit the screenplay never provides him a showy monologue or expressive scene in which – as we can imagine lesser films might – he gets to rage at the heavens. The film is too smart for that.
Blunt, without benefit of Damon’s comparatively greater screen time, matches Damon’s restraint while making her character alluring on several levels. In that initial men’s room scene, her dialogue suggests a free-spirited type similar to the over-used and (and perhaps over-celebrated) pixie dream girl trope. Thankfully Elise the character outgrows that shoebox in seconds; she’s too old for the impish behavior suggested by the scene, for one thing; for another, such contrivance would derail the film’s better aspirations. Blunt’s best moment in the film comes later, when Elise confronts Norris for abandoning her: rather than allow herself to sink into bitchiness or spite, her hurt and anger fuel her reasoning with him.
The adjusters, meanwhile, carry frustrations with their job but keep a brusque professionalism with each other. John Slattery, playing the adjuster Richardson, makes an effective foil for Norris’ determination, at once amused by the humans’ resolve but wary of the consequences of defiance. His impatience and disappointment with Mackie’s rebel angel, communicated with impatient gestures and harried asides, speaks volumes without lapsing into bald exposition. “Three years later and I’m still cleaning up your mess,” Richardson tells him bitterly, as they pass in a hallway. You get the sense the adjusters feel as mystified by the Chairman’s plans as anyone else, but their’s isn’t to question why, no matter how much the job drains them.
In turn this only raises larger issues, but they’re the issues that the movie wants to face. Predestination is an old, old subject in art and culture, and here the film’s split-the-difference explanation of determinism grinding against free will might either intrigue or annoy you, depending on how you felt about such matters in the first place. Thompson (Terence Stamp, imperious as ever), the adjuster’s “hammer” sent in to separate Norris and Elise once and for all, explains the rises and falls of human history as a series of interspersed periods of free will and divine engineering. Agree with him or not, his perspective is both smart and chilling. The film’s submerged theme – that there is a plan, but it’s imperfect, and it changes all the time – is also troubling on any number of levels. The film doesn’t provide any answers, but there’s something to say for a mainstream film of this day and age even asking the questions.
With so much done right and most often done very well, it’s almost inevitable that the film underwhelm a little at the ending. It does, but only mildly and only very narrowly. A resolution that allows for – well, a happy ending, honestly – comes along too tidily and too conveniently to earn its place among the scenes preceding it; listen to the dialogue closely and you may even be reminded of The Wizard of Oz, and realistically we can imagine that wasn’t Dick’s or Nolfi’s intent. Until those last moments, however, The Adjustment Bureau is handsome, near-excellent filmmaking.
- Michael Kabel