The movie follows the actions and interactions of four people. Stellan Skarsgard plays Alex Green, a movie producer who is cheating on his wife, Emma (Saffron Burrows), with Rose (Salma Hayek), an aspiring actress. Rose's jealous lover, Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorn), is so suspicious that she plants a bug in Rose's purse to find out what's going on. Most of the movie is set in the offices of Red Mullet Productions, Alex's company. The Red Mullet team, including Holly Hunter, Xander Berkeley, Golden Brooks, and Steven Weber, are trying to proceed with business as usual, while Alex appears to be unraveling emotionally before our eyes. Emma wants to leave him; Rose wants him to help her get a part in the company's new film; and Alex doesn't seem to know what he wants.
Meanwhile, the new film -- Bitch from Louisiana -- has just had its schedule mercilessly cut, throwing director Lester Moore (Richard Edson) into a panic. A flaky massage therapist (Julian Sands) is wandering around the premises. A slick agent (Kyle MacLachlan) is bringing in a pretentious client (Mia Maestro) to pitch a project. (The project she wants to do is clearly Time Code itself.)
In short, there is a lot going on, though little of it is earthshaking...not counting several aftershocks that hit the area during the course of the story. But we can see trouble brewing as the increasingly upset Lauren sits out in her limo eavesdropping, thanks to the bug, on much of the action.
If this were all the film offered -- essentially a meandering pastiche of the sort of multicharacter drama that Robert Altman pioneered and that Alan Rudolph and Paul Thomas Anderson have also employed -- it wouldn't be all that interesting. But consider that Figgis shot the entire thing in real time, in one long take, using four time-synched digital cameras, each with a 93-minute cartridge. At least, that's what the filmmakers claim: Two and a half years ago, the makers of the low-budget film Running Time made a similar "continuous shot" claim, when in fact they used dozens of hidden cuts. While there are no apparent edits in Time Code, there were certainly several moments that could have been used to disguise cutting -- most obviously, the periodic seismic aftershock scenes that required jostling the cameras.
And then consider this: Rather than edit the film together in the usual fashion, Figgis has presented all four tapes simultaneously, one in each quadrant of the screen. He simply forgoes all the advantages of standard montage in favor of a presentation that lets "audience members...literally edit the film in their own way, choosing which images and plots to focus on and follow" (according to the production notes).
Well, yes and no. Even though there was no visual editing beyond the synching of the four camera views, there has been, by necessity, quite a bit of work on the audio, and those decisions serve to create a sort of pseudo-editing. To have simply kept the 36 audio tracks -- one mike for each actor, plus some -- at identical levels would have created a cacophony in which most dialogue would have been incomprehensible. So Figgis and his crew had to mix these into a coherent track. As a result, while there are occasions when the sounds for all four images are at roughly the same level, most of the time Figgis has chosen to emphasize those accompanying one of the images, at the expense of the others. This has the natural effect of directing our attention to a single quadrant as surely as if Figgis had cut to it full-frame.
The most obvious analogy -- one that Figgis, a former professional musician and composer of the film's score, invokes and that leaps to mind almost instantly when watching the movie -- is musical. While a symphonic score involves numerous parts playing simultaneously, there is generally one particular melodic line to which our ears are directed. There were other musical elements in the movie's creation. There is no screenplay credit: Figgis only takes a story credit. He claims to have laid out the "script" using musical notation, with bars representing minutes. He specified certain moments when characters had to be at certain spots or where two or more of the cameras' views would intersect. Within that structure and the basic story, he allowed the actors to improvise. For two weeks, they shot a different complete run-through every afternoon; the resulting film is simply one of the 15 resulting versions. (Imagine the possibilities for the DVD!)
It's an awesome accomplishment in terms of choreography and direction, though in some ways not quite so unheard of. The mechanics of the feat resemble nothing so much as the production of live television dramas from the Golden Age, when directors had to coordinate multiple cameras on the fly in real time and in a confined space. The difference is that in TV, images from only one camera would be shown at a time, giving the other cameramen an opportunity to set up their next shots. Here, the cameramen never had the luxury of any down time.
So simply for its technical freshness, Time Code is eminently watchable, once you get used to the multiple-image composition. But it would be wrong to suggest that this novelty is the film's sole virtue. Despite the temptation to separate completely the technical aspects from the "content," it would be a disservice to do so.
While the story itself may be thin, Figgis' technique allowed the actors to become truly absorbed in their roles, recapturing one of the virtues of stage performance most commonly lost on the big screen. And it provides a theatrical sense of closeness, as though we are bystanders in the midst of the action, only barely managing not to be noticed by the characters.
Not surprisingly, the excellent Skarsgard gives the most compelling performance, but Burrows, whose biggest exposure has been in the action films Deep Blue Sea and Wing Commander, reaches a similar intensity. The reality of the whole setup is convincing enough that, beyond those two, it's hard to single out particular performances. In the best sense, it appears as though we're simply surrounded by a group of real people.