June 26, 2009
There is something about a mystery or a thriller set on a train in transit to somewhere that is inherently cinematic. Alfred Hitchcock made one of the greatest films of this kind with Strangers on a Train (1951) and Lars von Trier definitely made one of the strangest with Europa (1991). In between, you’ve got quintessential murder mysteries (Murder on the Orient Express), action thrillers (Runaway Train), and horror films (Terror Train). One of the latest additions to this peculiar sub-genre is Night Train (2009).
Late one snowy night around Christmastime, a desperate looking man just makes it on to a train before it pulls out. He clings onto a present like it is the most important thing on Earth. He ends up passing out in a train car with Pete (Zahn), a lousy salesman, and Chloe (Sobieski), a young pre-med student. When Miles (Glover), the train’s conductor, asks the man for money for his ticket, he discovers that the man has died. A mysterious wooden box falls out of the package that the man was carrying and Pete can’t resist checking it out despite being warned not to by Miles.
Eventually, Chloe and Miles also look in the box and they all see something that is very beautiful and very valuable (although, we never see what’s inside it). They argue about what they should do. Do they take whatever is in the box and split up the amount that it’s worth? They decide to get rid of the body and divide up the profits, but of course it’s not going to be that easy (is it ever in these kinds of films?).
Steve Zahn plays the motormouth schemer, Danny Glover is the one with some semblance of a conscience and Leelee Sobieski is the quiet one, the wild card that changes everything. She has a deliciously unhinged role to sink her teeth into and it’s a lot of fun to see her character get progressively crazier. What happened to Sobieski’s career? She had such a promising start with Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and has yet to capitalize on the promise of that film, doing mostly B-movies with the notable exception of a small role in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009). She certainly has an intriguing presence on camera, a certain enigmatic quality that few filmmakers have been able to capitalize on and she is quite good in this film.
We don’t get the characters’ backstories in Night Train but let’s be honest, they are not all that important. First-time director Brian King drops these three people, with contrasting personalities into the film, and lets them bounce off each other. By not giving us any background information on the characters we are in the same boat as they are: we don’t know anything about them and so we don’t know what they are capable of until they are put in a given situation. As a result, the film keeps us guessing as to what they’re going to do next.
Night Train is nicely shot, intentionally set during the holiday season which gives King the excuse to decorate the train with atmospheric Christmas lights which is contrasted with shots of the train’s exterior as it goes speeding through the cold, inhospitable night. Much like the twisted thriller Shallow Grave (1994), once a significant amount of money is involved, normal people start behaving irrationally, driven by greed and willing to do all sorts of unpleasant things. King keeps things moving at a brisk pace as Night Train clocks in at a lean 91 minutes, trimmed of any narrative fat. The result is a tense thriller with lots of entertaining plot twists that keeps you guessing as to how it will all play out.
There is a trailer.
Also included is a “Photo Gallery,” a two-minute montage of stills from Night Train.
“Making of Featurette” takes a look at how the film came together. Director King talks about how he always liked trains as a setting in films and was inspired by old John Huston films. The producers talk about the challenge of building train sets and why they couldn’t just shoot on a real train. There are all kinds of behind-the-scenes footage which gives an indication of how much work went into this project.
“Interviews/Soundbites with Cast and Crew” features the four main actors, the director, the producers, and the SFX makeup guy. The actors talk about their characters and their interpretation of what the box means. They also talk about what drew them to their respective characters. The soundbites in the making of featurette are taken from these segments but now you can see them organized by person.