A Baby Driver star goes Black Mirror in Jonathan, the sci-fi drama from co-writer-director Bill Oliver. Well, more accurately, the Ansel Elgort-topper approaches the twisted anthology, links arms with it in the moonlight and walks down some of the same paths the series has previously plodded along, but gets lost in the dark along the way, the fizziness of its strange and captivating premise at times falling flat at the feet of its cast — save for Elgort, who bears the weight of Jonathan without any ostensible struggle and keeps the sort-of-”William Wilson,” sort-of-Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde feature from completely collapsing in on itself.
Written by Oliver, Gregory Davis, and Peter Nickowitz, Jonathan opens on a sterile shot of its title character — the prim, hair-perfectly-parted, almost painfully proper 20-something — recounting the days of his events down the lens of a camera, as if he’s rattling off symptoms of a persistent cough or a could-be-the-flu sickness that’s plaguing him. His day at work was good, a new woman at the office seems to have taken a liking to him, he started preliminary designs for a 10,000-square-foot house in Greenwich, he ran into Sarah and helped her with her groceries, he meal-prepped grilled chicken and broccoli, he worried about the monthly budget, and he did dishes and he brushed his teeth and he’s been feeling sort of tired lately, have you?
The “you” Jonathan speaks to isn’t a digital pen pal or a long-distance lover in another continent, it’s someone much closer: his twin brother, the laidback and loquacious Jon, with whom he shares one body. To operate efficiently and without any hiccups or disruptions, the pair record videos to get the other up to speed on what happened in their dual life while the other was unconscious. It’s an extremely rare phenomenon that Jonathan and Jon embody and exhibit, but it does — as Jonathan feverishly insists — exists. In the film’s contained canon, it’s called “single-body multi-consciousness,” wherein Jonathan takes control of the body from 7am to 7pm, spending it jogging around the city, working part-time at a pristine architectural firm, eating healthily, and always trying to get a good night’s sleep — which can be difficult when Jon rises to get behind the wheel, working late nights at a law firm, hitting up the local bar with his buds, and often leaving Jonathan to deal with hangovers by the time he wakes.
Though Jon, with his tousled hair and tranquil demeanor, goes about his dusk-to-dawn 12 hours without much care, Jonathan doesn’t afford himself the freedom to be as relaxed. To the very best of his ability (which always seems prodigy-level), the straight-laced twin executes an exhaustive regimen to ensure a seamless hand-off to his brother: lie to his bosses at the firm about why he can’t work a full 40 hours a week, telling them that he’s the caretaker for an ill relative; monitor his and Jon’s spending habits down to the penny to assure they always have food, water, and shelter; regularly meet with his private investigator Ross Craine (Matt Bomer) to pore over every detail of Jon’s life that he may not be relaying to Jonathan in his video messages; and discuss with Dr. Mina Nariman (Patricia Clarkson) his anxieties and fears about the odd life he only sometimes leads.
Jon pokes a massive, ship-sinking hole into Jonathan’s otherwise airtight plan — the routine he runs “like a German train” — when he breaks the biggest rule to which the brothers must adhere: no emotional involvement with others, no entering into a committed relationship.
At first angry at his other half and sick with unease about this unforeseen force entering his life, Jonathan ultimately ventures to learn more about Jon’s (and, by default, his) girlfriend Elena (Suki Waterhouse), discover the pleasures the world has to offer beyond the walls and strict confines of self-built privacy, and begin to form a true identity of his own, without so much concern for how it might affect Jon. But the more Jonathan loosens his grip on his 12 hours, the more jealous, indignant, and chaotic Jon becomes.
This sets a clear foundation for a Jekyll and Hyde push-pull, with one brother lashing out in bursts and threatening to throw off the painstakingly constructed equilibrium, become dominant over the other, and (ultimately, terrifyingly) silence him forever. But the film is less concerned with and doesn’t place emphasis on those violent piques that pockmark Jonathan’s existence. Rather, Jonathan views with a rime-covered lens the intricacies of brotherhood, identity, mortality, consciousness, and existence, and gives it a sci-fi spin that makes for an unsettling but not entirely satisfying character study that’s all about the small, insuperable things viewers must buy into if other, easier conclusions to the Jon/Jonathan dilemma are to be deemed futile and the feature’s focus on the poignancy of their existence be considered supreme.
In Jonathan, there is no big blowout scene that cracks the climax in half. There is no massive explosion of emotion that releases the steam bottled up in the first two acts of the feature. Director Oliver simply doesn’t play Jonathan in that particular key, choosing instead to maintain ambiguity, a slow burn, and a one-track perspective that befits the elements of introspection he underscores throughout but repeatedly fails to keep aflame its central conflict — the one the film has us believe should be red-hot. While Elgort delivers a strong leading performance, and the film conserves to its closing moments the peculiar slant it led with, Jonathan ends up only just adequate: smart but not as genius as Jonathan, tense but not as mortally conflicted as Jon.