The Director of Netflix's 'Anon' Explains the Brain-Scrambling Ending
This post contains spoilers for the movie Anon, and discusses the ending of the movie in detail.
"My life would be much easier if I had someone wearing a cape," jokes Andrew Niccol, the writer of the reality-questioning classic The Truman Show and director of mind-bending sci-fi thrillers like Gattaca and In Time. As original genre movies that aren't based on pre-existing comics or bestselling novels become more difficult for filmmakers to get off the ground, the 53-year-old New Zealander has found ways to keep telling the stories that matter to him. Capes be damned.
His latest project, Anon, a noir-like cyber-mystery starring Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried, is currently streaming on Netflix and again finds Niccol examining a hot-button issue through a speculative lens. In the way his previous films tackled artificial intelligence (2002's Simone), arms dealing (2005's Lord of War), and drone warfare (2014's Good Kill), Anon dives into the high-stakes intersection between the emerging police surveillance state and personal privacy. In a dystopian future where augmented-reality implants turn your eyes into a pair of constantly recording cameras, hard-drinking detective Sal Frieland (Owen) is tasked with investigating a series of brutal murders committed by a gifted hacker. Where most of Sal's cases are closed by simply reviewing (and occasionally doctoring) the memory tapes of a victim, this killer will replace your vision with what they're seeing, rendering the crime unsolvable. The murderer can't be seen -- or tracked.
"I take things to their logical conclusions -- or illogical conclusions," Niccol recently said in a phone interview. "We're all live-blogging right now. People are walking around the street with these devices in their hands, looking down. I've just taken the technology a leap ahead. But we all use these phones and devices to the point where we're almost evolving and becoming biotech."
He follows that logic to some genuinely creepy places in the movie's final section. For much of the film, we follow Owen's character as he engages in a careful cat-and-mouse game with an unnamed hacker played by Seyfried. She's his only real suspect: A femme fatale type who provides memory-erasing services for rich clients looking to cover up illicit activity like art forgery or extramarital affairs. But after her services are rendered, many of her customers end up dead.
As Owen gets closer and closer to finding out the true identity of the murderer, his own eyes malfunction and the story takes on a hallucinatory quality. Throughout the movie, the viewer learns how the augmented-reality technology works through frequent point-of-view shots of small, low-stakes interactions like paying for food at a cafe or walking by a stranger on the street. Job titles, ages, and biographical details are displayed for every passerby, along with the occasional advertisement. (Niccol describes writing all this extra material to be "kinda a nightmare.") The biotech is advanced and the information is abundant, but not much more intrusive than having a few dozen tabs open in a web browser. When things go wrong, Owen's character is haunted by visions of rats, flames, and horrifying memories of his son's tragic death, which he's been trying to suppress.
"It was all playing on his own fears," says Niccol. "He's also confronted with the most painful time in his life. He's always going back to the memory of his son, and then the memory is hacked out of his record. What he's forced to watch is the moment where he took his eye off his son and his son was killed. To have that playing over and over again is a very special kind of torture."
Is Seyfried the one pulling the strings on his mind's eye? Nope. In the movie's final showdown, we learn she wasn't the one behind the murders. Instead, it was all the work of Cyrus Frear, a security expert assigned to the case and played with sinister flair by Halt and Catch Fire's Mark O'Brien. The details are better left to unpack for yourself as you watch, because there are some genuinely confusing techno-mysteries to solve, but suffice to say Seyfried's character has kept herself anonymous by implanting bits of her life into her clients' records, and Frear is part of a network of hackers keeping Seyfried's character safe.
"She's found the most ingenious way to hide, which was to actually put a fragment of her life in your life record, in my life record, and in the life records of billions of people," says Niccol when asked about Cyrus's revelation. "You'd need an algorithm to stitch it all back together, which I found very interesting. That you can actually hide in plain site like that, so if you were replaying your life you'd get maybe one frame of hers. But it would be very hard for you to find it. It's a bit of a mind-fuck."
The mind-fuckery continues up until the film's closing moments, when Seyfried's hacker confronts Owen's cop on the waterfront. Sal has clearly changed, and his understanding of how his information-gathering system works has been completely upended, leading to the type of larger philosophical crisis that often faces the protagonists of Niccol's films. How do you continue to live when your sense of reality has been so warped by technology?
For Seyfried's character -- and perhaps for Niccol himself -- the answers begin with rethinking our conception of privacy. "It's not that I have something to hide," she tells Sal before walking away at the end of the film. "I have nothing I want you to see." It's a familiar line of criticism that's been articulated by activists, politicians, and writers regarding a wide range of cyber-security scandals from Edward Snowden to Cambridge Analytica. "That's the punch in the gut at the end of the film, hopefully," says Niccol. "That's the false choice we're always given: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."
It may sound a bit too didactic for a typical thriller, but beneath the shootouts, plot twists, and special effects, Niccol's movies always have a moral core. Like The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling or Black Mirror's Charlie Brooker, Niccol clearly relishes the ethical contradictions and ideological tensions involved in looking at these thorny ideas. The irony of distributing a movie about the dangers of algorithmic thinking on a platform like Netflix, which uses its own sophisticated computer science to recommend movies and keep your eyes glued to the screen, isn't lost on him. He's amused by it.
"When I was discussing with them what the trailer was going to be, they said, 'Well, it depends who you are,'" he says of working with the streaming giant. "In technology terms, many people have home theaters that are better than your local multiplex, and in my world of Anon, there are no theaters. There are no screens at all because it's all in your head -- your mind's eye, as we call it. It felt weirdly appropriate."