It was culture tastemaker Irs Apfel who once said, “Fashion you can buy, but style you possess.” While she was referring to life as an east coast maven, as well as popular White House restoration designer, it more than aptly applies to movies like Terminal too. The cool affectation of an icy blonde clouded in cigarette smoke on a moonlit street is as much in the DNA of cinema as cowboy hats and superhero capes—and no matter what, it will always look ever so much more fashionable. Doubly so when it’s someone as chic as Margot Robbie holding that cigarette. Nevertheless, all the chicness in the world will not be able to save a movie that is otherwise posturing.
Such is the case with first-time writer-director Vaughn Stein’s Terminal, a heavily stylized piece of hyper noir about a waitress/stripper/budding contract killer named Annie (Robbie) and the web of snarling hard cases she finds herself ensnared in. All crimson-red lipstick and a Cheshire grin as wide as the one in the Lewis Carroll story she’s always quoting, Robbie appears the very personification of what we imagine a femme fatale to be, and like the camera and men in her life, it is all too easy to follow her into the dark place. But it’s only when you get there that you become aware of how empty Terminal is, and how little of its own style is anything more than a pastiche of much better storytellers.
What little story there is of in Terminal is mainly relegated to two separate narratives that never quite intersect. The first and infinitely more compelling one is about what happens when an ailing academic with a death wish walks into Annie’s all-night diner in the wee small hours of the morning. Suffering from cancer, a tumor, or some unknown combination betwixt them, Simon Pegg’s Bill is a sad sack who is also the only human being in the neon-lit snare, and thus perfect prey for his waitress. Taking a seat next to him and lighting his smoke, her beguilement and his indifference make for excellent company, especially when the conversation turns to her favorite subject: imminent death.
The other narrative is more traditional small-time crooks shenanigans involving two hit men (Dexter Fletcher and Max Irons) also walking into Annie’s world. They even follow her down the rabbit hole to a strip club literally named “Le Lapine Blanche” (The White Rabbit), which makes them look as competent as any other pair of patsies in these kind of stories. Irons’ younger assassin is quickly seduced while Fletcher’s older killer must fend off inexplicable Mike Myers cameos.
If there is one thing going for it, Terminal has visual panache to spare. With the title cards being presented as just a few more neon lit bulbs in its urban decayed wasteland, the film is set in about as real a world as those found on the cover of Mickey Spillane novels. All canted angles and high-contrast, color-coded lighting, the film is awash in a happy decadence that cinematographer Christopher Ross has a ball with. Yet while sometimes intoxicating, the effect can often be exhausting as well, as its implicit nihilism is undercut by the glee of just making a film that all but writes its homages on billboards.
As such, it’s a bit like being trapped inside a garish funhouse: for the first 15 or 20 minutes it is amusing, but after 90 minutes, it is overwhelming to spot the distorted mirror of Brian De Palma over there, and the slip ‘n slide to Guy Ritchie archetypes over here; there’s the balloon-door entrance shaped in the very image of Quentin Tarantino’s own Pulp Fiction, and a plot twist finale that owes equally to Christopher Nolan and Bryan Singer.
There’s so much intertextual referencing, what little is left between the lines is wholly on the actors to create. As such, the narrative between Robbie and Pegg is definitely curious and curiouser than any of the fairly perfunctory scenes with Irons and Fletcher. An underrated thespian in his own right, Simon Pegg makes good on a smaller role that lets him lean into earnestness; he’s a seemingly innocent bloke who has been condemned to an ignoble fate… unless Robbie can pitch him a more exciting coup de grace.
For all the movie’s grandiose affectations, a much better smaller film is buried within Pegg and Robbie having a brainstorming session about suicide that’s also just a hair’s breath away from foreplay. With the camera and lighting taking a backseat, Robbie’s allowed to build a fully formed fatale who Pegg’s dithering Bill has no chance of surviving. If the film had literally been just these two inside their booth, Terminal might’ve been something special.
As it is, Terminal seems destined to maybe find cult appreciation as a midnight discovery on Netflix or VOD. But watched at any other time of day, it will fall apart like piles of glitter in morning light.