Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Cypher



aka Company Man : USA (USA/Canada?) 2003 (made 2002) : Vincenzo NATALI : 96 minsCypher

The movie made as Company Man underwent a change of identity some time after filming ended, emerging as the more mysterious-sounding Cypher a one-word title, just like director Natalis last movie, cult favourite Cube (1997). No-one actually mentions the word cypher in Cypher, however: it means a person or thing of no importance, or rather a person or thing with no solid identity of their own.

Such as Morgan Sullivan (Jeremy Northam), a somewhat geeky-nerdy, even Forrest Gumpish chap who, as the film begins, is applying to work at Digicorp a shadowy near-future organisation whose main rival is the equally shadowy Sunways. Sullivan gets the job which involves passing himself off as Jack Thursby and engaging in some low-level corporate espionage against Sunways. But before long, Sullivan finds himself lost in a paranoid world where nothing and nobody are quite what they seem

CypherTo say any more would be extremely unfair Cypher (memorably described on a French website as un thriller cerebro-futuriste ambitieux) is meticulously constructed as a head-spinning mind-fuck of a movie, surpassing even John McNaughtons Wild Things (1998) for the sheer number of audacious twists and turns along the way. Of course, Natali and scriptwriter Brian King aren’t breaking too much new ground here critics and audiences alike will have plenty of fun ticking off the nods and winks to the countless cinematic and literary forebears: the first half-hour, so drained of colour as to be almost monochrome, strongly recalls the dystopian vision of Spielbergs Minority Report, and Philip K Dick is perhaps the most obvious point of reference.

Readers of a semi-forgotten Vladimir Nabokov novel will, however, have the biggest head start but this review won’t spoil the fun by naming which one. Likewise, the casting of Jeremy Northam as Sullivan (whose name combines Preston Sturges Miracle of Morgans Creek and Sullivans Travels) is, as anyone who knows anything about the actor will eventually realise, brilliantly witty but, again, youll have to find out why for yourself.

CypherIts no spoiler, however, to say that Northam handles the nightmarishly difficult role of Sullivan whose character slowly executes a 360 degree personality change with terrific aplomb. King and Natali provide him with a worthy framework in which to operate, nimbly avoiding the perils that might easily have capsized lesser talents. Namely (1) that echoes of previous books and movies could have turned Cypher into something of a cypher itself, (2) that the clever plot could have tipped over into the unfortunate and very different realm of the clever-clever and (3) that the futuristic production design could have overwhelmed the more pressing concerns of character and story.

The avoidance of these hazards mean its crucially always possible to work out whats going on and why, and there is sufficient deadpan humour along the way to ensure we never bog down into the portentousness that mars most bigger-budget excursions into the near future: Natali may not be any kind of Preston Sturges, but you will laugh out loud when Sullivan gets to the top of the ladder. To say any more, however

27th May, 2003
(seen 24th May 2003: National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford Fantastic Films Weekend)

by Neil Young