First, a little history:
Cypher was a US production made in 2001 in Toronto, and was originally called Company Man. (In some countries it’s also known as Brainstorm.) Canadian Vincenzo Natali directed a script by Brian King that defies categorization. Besides Jeremy Northam, the cast includes Lucy Liu, David Hewlett, Kari Matchett, Timothy Webber, and Nigel Bennett. Generally well-reviewed, the movie has had a rocky history nonetheless. Cypher was meant to be released in mid-2002, but it only premiered at the Sitges [Spain] Film Festival in October of that year. It opened in various countries over the course of 2003, including a September release in the UK. However, Cypher never had a theatrical release in North America. Aside from some festival screenings (TIFF, for example, in September 2003), it was never shown in movie theaters in that part of the world. The film’s North American distributor, Miramax (still controlled by the Weinstein brothers at that point), even dragged its heels about putting Cypher out on DVD. A Region 1 DVD wasn’t available until August of 2005.
Cypher has since become a cult favorite, with fans debating the many movies and books that serve as its inspiration. People also have a lot to say about the movie’s ending. But the majority of viewers praise it. If I had a dime for every time I’ve read the words “Why haven’t I ever heard of this great film?” written about Cypher in a fan community discussion board, I’d be a rich woman.
A decade after the fact, Natali seems philosophical about the lack of support his film received. In an interview with Jack Giroux for the Film School Rejects blog last year, he had this to say: “[W]hen I made Cypher, which is a movie not many people have seen, the Weinsteins, at that time Miramax, had it, and they are notorious for re-cutting movies and tearing them apart. With my movie, I just don’t think they even noticed I made it. They didn’t even know! Or care. So the upside of that was they didn’t tinker with it. The downside was that they didn’t release it and stuck it in a vault. So not by design, but by sort of accident in that case I had final cut. I made exactly the movie I wanted to make. … [I]t’s a consolation prize for not having my film released. I look at it that way.”
Quotes about the movie and its star, Jeremy Northam:
“I don’t know quite how to describe it, but it’s kind of a fantasy hyper-paranoid thriller. There are elements of ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘Manchurian Candidate.’ There’s brainwashing, mixed identities, it should be fun. It was certainly fun to make.”—Jeremy Northam, Zap2it.com interview by Andria Kuo, April 2002
“I cast Jeremy not particularly because he’s British, but because he’s one of the few leading men who is also a character actor. We needed those two things in the person who played Morgan Sullivan because he does transform so dramatically through the course of the film. I think if people who haven’t seen the movie were shown a scene from the beginning and then a scene from the end I don’t know that they would recognise Jeremy because he really did disappear into the role. I was very lucky to get him, he did an amazing job.”—Vincenzo Natali, in his DVD commentary
“Jeremy Northam, who tends to specialise in rakish charmers, effectively plays a man pretending to be Jeremy Northam. As the geekish, shuffling Sullivan, he lays it on cartoonishly thick, all the better to make Sullivan look absurdly out of place in the new world he inhabits, very much like Philip K Dick’s beleaguered little-man loser-heroes. Mixing James Stewart diffidence and Jerry Lewis gawkiness, Northam’s Sullivan is a 1950s jerk in a 2050s universe.”—from the Independent on Sunday review of Cypher by Jonathan Romney, August 2003
“There’s a distinct nod to the North By Northwest cropduster scene, with Sullivan dumped in the middle of nowhere to await further developments; this makes perfect sense, as Northam is a convincing reincarnation of Cary Grant’s smoothie-in-a-pickle persona.”—from the Independent review
“Jeremy Northam adds to his reputation for versatility with Cypher, a film that will fail at the box office because of its lack of star power, but deserves to gain a cult reputation for its sharp visual style and one of the more outrageous plot-twists in movie history.”—from a review in the Daily Mail by Christopher Tooky, September 2003
“The film is really a showcase for the chameleon talents of Jeremy Northam, an actor whose blend of coy charm and debonair confidence is both quintessentially English (he’s from Cambridge) and pure golden age Hollywood. … Cypher offers him such a perfectly tailored character that it’s hard to imagine anyone else was in the running at all.”—from a review by Hannah McGill for the Herald (Scotland), September 2003
“[I]t’s the performances that elevate the pic beyond a simple intellectual exercise. Adopting a rotund, perfect middle-American accent, and changing body language, Brit thesp Northam has considerable fun in the central role, as a kind of Hitchockian everyman; Northam’s transformation at the end is almost into that of a different actor. Liu, who often has difficulty bringing warmth to her characters, is genuinely noirish and sexy here as the tough Rita, and both [Timothy] Webber and David Hewlett (as a subterranean Sunways techie) also bring some humor and human personality to the picture.”—from the review by Derek Elley for Variety, July 2003
“Northam is ideally suited to playing spies. It’s something to do with the rich, honeyed, seductive voice, the perfect English diction and the sly eyes which can ooze charm and cunning in equal measure. He’s had one go already: he was perfect as the machiavellian British spymaster in the World War Two drama Enigma, opposite Kate Winslet. But in his latest film, Northam beautifully subverts all of his natural characteristics – not least his good looks – to turn almost every cliché about the screen spy on its head.”—from an interview with JN by Demetrios Matheou for the Herald (Scotland), August 2003
“Cypher is a strange, complex, futuristic spy thriller, which its director – the Canadian Vincenzo Natali – quite justifiably calls ‘James Bond meets Kafka’. In it, Northam plays an American accountant, Morgan Sullivan, who is so bored with life that he joins a multinational company as a corporate spy. He’s given a new identity and sent to a series of hilariously tedious conventions (one is on processed cheese, another on shaving cream distribution outlets) in order to tape the proceedings. ‘He’s a nerdish, bone-achingly normal guy in a boring job,’ says Northam. ‘And now he thinks he’s going to be James Bond.’”—from the Demetrios Matheou interview
Cypher is available to stream on Netflix from August 1, 2014.
I wrote the “history” of Cypher from information on IMDb as well as in interviews and reviews. If you notice an error, please let me know & I’ll fix it.