Monday, August 1, 2011

Movie Monday #10: Night Train

Last Friday I spent some time looking through the bins at Tom's Music Trade for some cheap movies to add to my collection.  One of the movies I ran across was Night Train, M. Brian King's 2008 noir mystery vehicle, which I snagged for $1.99.  The original Blockbuster Video price tag was still on the case, which listed the price as $14.99.  Sure, I got the movie for a song...but was it worth it?


“Who hasn’t chopped up a corpse from time to time?”

--Steve Zahn as Pete, Night Train

The concept of a movie on a train has been done to death.

There. I said it. I got it off my chest.

But there hasn’t been a movie on a train in a long time, and the genre seems to have disappeared altogether from Hollywood. So when an independent thriller comes along that takes place on a train traveling to nowhere on Christmas Eve, I was intrigued...and now that I’ve seen Night Train, I can say that the genre hasn’t been done like this in a long time.

Miles (Danny Glover) is a veteran train conductor who merely wants to get home to his ailing wife by Christmas morning. At the first stop for his train, a strange man comes on board carrying a Christmas present. He takes a seat in the rear car, where washed-up salesman Pete (Steve Zahn) and pre-med student Chloe (Leelee Sobieski) are trying not to be weirded out by the new guy.

As the train gets under way, Miles stops by the rear car to see the stranger again. It seems the guy didn’t pay for a ticket, but that’s not going to be a problem--he’s dead. As Miles, Pete, and Chloe investigate this incident, Pete opens the Christmas present and finds a small, wooden box inside...and inside the box are five million dollars worth of white diamonds.

Miles thinks they should report the dead man to the authorities. Pete thinks they shouldn’t. Chloe points out that they can dump the stranger’s body from the train and into an upcoming river without anyone being the wiser...and soon, everything starts to snowball out of control as Chloe gets more and more manipulative, Miles starts to regret that he ever found the box, and Pete is too scared to think straight, which all leads to a smashing climax aboard the runaway train.

Danny Glover is someone who, after Lethal Weapon was said and done with, has really supported the independent film community with his work. He gives a performance here that’s as solid as I’ve ever seen from him. Everything about the character of Miles--his gait, his limp, his voice, and the way greed twists at his heart--really made me admire Glover as a terrific actor, and not just a straight man to Mel Gibson.

Leelee Sobieski is something of an enigma to me. I’d only seen her in Joyride before this, and while I thought she was gorgeous and definitely had talent, I didn’t know what else she brought to the table. Miss Sobieski proves that she has the acting chops to compete with some of the best out there in Night Train. Her turn as the manipulative and slightly psychotic Chloe is one of the better and more realistic femme fatale portrayals I’ve seen in recent years, and the more horror-oriented elements of the film played to her strengths quite well. I’ll be looking for more of her work from now on.

Steve Zahn (who co-starred with Sobieski in Joyride) has been redefining himself lately as someone who can take on dramatic roles (see his turn in A Perfect Getaway for evidence of this) as well as comedic ones. His character, Pete, slowly develops over the period of the film into the audience’s guilty conscience, since he’s the one who wants to run away with the box and never come back, and ends up getting killed by his own greed. A good lesson to be learned by anyone who wants to pursue a life of crime, and a lesson well-acted by Steve Zahn.

Writer/director M. Brian King confesses a childhood love for trains in an interview on the DVD, and it shows in every frame of Night Train. The entire movie takes place on the train (say for the last few minutes), and while the exterior train shots were all done with CGI, that didn’t seem to bother me very much--King clearly knew how he wanted his film to look, to sound, and to feel, and he brought every bit of that to the table.

Production Designer John Welbanks is the kind of guy I’d hire if I were making a movie. He had to design a wooden six-car train setup inside a studio in Yugoslavia and get it done on a budget. The results speak for themselves. The train itself looks like an old model that’s ready for retirement. The interior has a 40’s-style wood finish. There are Christmas decorations and twinkle lights everywhere. And the best part of it all was the baggage cart, a cold, wrought-iron place where Chloe “improvises” with how to dispose of the dead stranger. Kudos to John for creating a gorgeous and believable backdrop for the film to take place in.

My only real complaint about the film was the lighting by Christopher Popp. I don’t know if it was a style choice or if it was M. Brian King’s choice, but for the majority of the movie, everything is fully lit, all the time. I realize it takes place on a train, and that trains are fully lit the majority of the time, but a little mood lighting wouldn’t have hurt in certain spots. The only real lighting change was in the baggage cart scenes with the florescent bulbs, which was absolutely gorgeous, but the soft, happy lighting downplayed the dark, noir-like themes going on on-screen. Somebody needed to do their homework on what noir lighting is all about, but as to whose flub it was will remain a mystery.

If you watch Night Train, be prepared for a Hitchcock-like noir thriller that takes an unexpected sci-fi twist, and get ready for lots of other twists along the way too. While it’s not the best film I’ve ever seen, it certainly grabbed my attention with the mystery of the dead man and his mysterious box, and the things the characters do for the box’s contents are believable and keep your interest. If you like your movies a little on the darker side and with a touch of the macabre, then you’ll love Night Train.

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