John Cusack and Malin Ackerman are an interesting pair under fire in The Numbers Station, a lean thriller from Danish director Kasper Barfoed. Cusack stars as Emerson, a covert government operative that takes care of loose ends. His killer instinct is questioned when he lets a witness survive a hit. Emerson is taken off active duty and placed in a "numbers station" in the rural English countryside. His sole duty is to watch over an intelligence officer, Katherine (Ackerman), as she reads a series of code numbers via radio signals to clandestine agents undercover. These numbers cannot be decoded. Emerson and Katherine share this duty by rotating through shifts with another team (Lucy Griffiths and Bryan Dick). Katherine, filled with vigor and patriotic spirit, attempts to know the quiet and serious man she's been working with. Their bond is tested when a group of unknown intruders ambush them as they enter their shift. What follows is a cat and mouse game in the labyrinthine structure as they try to figure out what the attackers want and the fate of their compatriots.
The Numbers Station works because of the absolute lack of fluff. F. Scott Frazier's screenplay creates a back story and quaint repoire between the leads, but it is Barfoed's moody direction and editing choices that moves the film at a breathless pace. The Numbers Station is shot in dark environments with a suffocating feel. It paints an interesting picture of one man banished to a seemingly boring end and a woman who relishes the secret nature of their work. It's only when they are fighting for their lives do both characters question the choices they've made to end up in their situation. Katherine is particularly unnerved to realize the real reason Emerson has been assigned to her. He's as much a watch dog as he is a guard dog.
Cusack's performance here is surely one of his most understated. Emerson speaks rarely, conveying his emotions with a weary face and steely resolve. It's difficult to play a tough guy without flowery, menacing dialogue and extreme action. I'll compare him to a cup of acid, absolutely lethal when you knock it over. There are several gun and fist fights that show the true skill of this killer character. I can compare Emerson to one of Cusack's most famous roles as the hit man in Grosse Pointe Blank. Imagine that character fifteen years later without finding happiness. The dark and brutal nature of the profession would weigh heavily on any sane individual.
There's a mystery element that carries the story. We see the attackers and slowly discover their agenda, but the viewpoints are from the leads. Half the excitement is using the technology in the station to figure out what happened to their coworkers and how did the assailants breach the security. Once again the pacing is key here. I felt that something new that contributes to the story was happening continuously. There isn't any extra scene where nothing is happening and the plot stagnates. I despise sitting through unnecessarily long stretches that add nothing to a film. I don't agree with style over substance and the filmmakers here adapt that philosophy.
I thought the chemistry between Malin Ackerman and John Cusack worked here. There's not a sexual vibe between the two, but more of a curiosity. There's a great scene where Emerson analyzes her character. She's upset at his observations, but more amazed by the truth of it. This is the point where she truly understands how cold and distant this man is. But as she worries about his intentions, his true nature surfaces as he defends her from the baddies. This is redemption of sorts for Emerson and Cusack plays it well.
The Numbers Station is a small, tactile thriller that grabs you from the opening and keeps you aptly entertained. There are a lot of bigger and longer films out there, but this one is short and sweet for the money. Cusack continues to be one of my favorite actors over the last twenty years. He's had as many misses as hits, but delivers a lot of variety with his choices.