Paycheck (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

Michael (Ben Affleck) doesn't set out to control anything: he just wants to get paid.


Director: John Woo
Cast: Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Joe Morton
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: DreamWorks
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-12-25

Warning: Plot spoilers ahead.

"The number one thriller in the country." This claim, in a recent advertisement for John Woo's new movie, is true. It's also crass and silly: Paycheck is the only thriller currently in wide release, unless you count Peter Pan. Still, it's easy to sympathize with the promoter assigned to come up with a hook. What can you possibly say about yet another filmic iteration of a Philip K. Dick memory overhaul story, the one that stars not Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise or even Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Ben Affleck?

The premise will be familiar to anyone with even passing knowledge of a Dick plot: Michael Jennings (Affleck, as impassive as you've ever seen him) is what they might call in some future a "reverse engineer." That is, he breaks down already-on-the-market technology, steals and retools it, then has his memory of the theft and the software "wiped." He achieves this last by a process approximating a brain boil -- heating of a particular lobe apparently erases a particular time, say, the past three weeks. For the Dick protagonist, messing with memory is always trouble: recall, identity, and politics are of a piece, and efforts to control of any one of these elements are sure to disrupt the other two.

Michael doesn't set out to control anything: he just wants to get paid. And he does this regularly, with the help of lovable tech Shorty (Paul Giamatti) and their smarmy billionaire employer, Jimmy Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), CEO for a company called -- so subtly -- ALLCOM. The turning point comes when Rethrick offers $92 million for an especially hazardous and lengthy gig. Returning to himself three years later, Michael is horrified to find that something has gone wrong. Not only has he lost his hefty paycheck, but he's also being hunted by the feds, in the form of Agent Dodge (Joe Morton) and Agent Klein (Michael C. Hall), as well as Rethrick's own muscle, in the form of a snarly fellow named Wolf (Colm Feore) and lackeys with varying neck sizes.

Fortunately for him, Michael has sent himself an envelope full of everyday items -- keys, cigarettes, a watch, a metro card -- that turn out to be helpful in very specific situations. While these items might represent the implausible ingenuity of sender and receiver (both versions of Michael), they certainly represent the film's major logic hole. That is, Past Michael has stolen the technology for a future-seeing machine and, having seen a bad future, has sent forward items to help Future Michael outmaneuver the bad guys. That any of these maneuvers might change that future, and so render the entire plan void, apparently never occurred to anyone involved with the project. As they say, logic schmogic.

That's not to say that a rational narrative is the most important factor in an SF movie, or even a thriller, if that's what this is. At the same time, though, Paycheck doesn't even attend to its own internal sense: If the future changes moment by moment, then how can Michael possibly anticipate it? And how dim are these feds anyway, smoking in interrogation rooms equipped with supersensitive smoke detectors and losing their mark in conventional city traffic even though they have surveillance helicopters churning overhead?

If it's not going to bother with such details, the movie might have amped up the fantastic quotient, rather than settling for what amounts to a film offers up a more or less standard search for identity (though Michael technically knows who he is, he's missing those three crucial years), plus a dollop of Woo's well-known stylistic signatures: slow motion shooting and car-chasing, a two-gun face-off between enemies-who-might-have-been-friends, even the fluttering white dove.

This detail, usually deemed a sign of the director's enthusiastic Catholicism when it shows up in his other films, here suggests a theme Paycheck doesn't actually take up, namely, the tensions among fate, faith, and free will. Such tensions are connected with Dick's longstanding interest in the interplay of identity and memory (see also: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for Blade Runner). All the hardware in Paycheck (brain boiling, chemical adjustments, the whirring future machine) is surely less interesting than the questions they jumpstart: who is Michael anyway? The greedy cuss who takes the original assignment? Or the visibly nicer, more emphatically moralistic hero who tries to save the planet?

As Michael reinvents himself and his future up as he goes along, he has help from the usual sources, including the step-ahead corporate nemeses (Rethrick and Wolf), the step-behind feds, and the briefly reappearing Shorty (it's a good guess that this character's part was bigger at one point, then chopped up). He also has input from The Girl, in this case, the lithe and lovely Rachel (Uma Thurman), an ostensibly brilliant biologist also working for Rethrick, whom he happens to meet before he goes into his last assignment. She reminds him of their three-year romance with a photo album and some teary blue eyes, but Michael's pretty much blank on how great they were together. Luckily, Thurman has retained her martial arts training from Kill Bill Vol. 1, which she puts to good use when facing some of the lugs traipsing around with Wolf.

Though Rachel/Thurman brings unexpected intertextual entertainment to the proceedings, her gig is limited: for the most part, she waits for Michael to make decisions, to realize the significance of the next item in his self-addressed envelope. The film offers one other reference, and it hardly matters whether it was intentional. When Agent Dodge is picking through some post-explosion rubble, he finds a vital clue as to Michael's scheming, and instead of delivering it to his superiors, he hides it away with a smile. For an instant, you might imagine that Joe Morton has found the Terminator's chip again. It fits as well as any other logical leap in Paycheck.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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