Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"I don't recommend it": A review of Night Train (2009)

I watched two movies the other night. The first was From Hell, the Jack the Ripper story based on Alan Moore's graphic novel and starring Heather Graham and Johnny Depp. Those two couldn't make a bad movie if they tried. I'm one-thirds to half-joking. The other movie was Night Train (2009). I had just been wondering to myself about two days earlier, what's Leelee Sobieski been up to since Eyes Wide Shut? Turns out the answer is a crap load of things, including several movies I have, in fact, seen...in some cases, very unfortunately.

Anyway, about the movie. A few preliminary remarks are called for. I am like Hume's Man of Taste, but still I've seen The Postman about 3 or 4 times more than I've seen La Dolce Vita, which I've seen twice. This isn't to say that I watch anything ironically. I have a very low tolerance for what is often designated "camp," and I rarely come across movies that "are so bad that they're good." I also don't get off on bad special effects, though it's usually pretty easy for me to ignore them.

Oh, also. I have sort of a weakness for suspense thrillers. I'd call it substance abuse, but it's a pretty happy day when one of these movies turns out to possess substance.

And I'm not hung up on "movies that make you think." I don't need a movie to make me think. And if I do think it's because I wanted to, not because some bossy movie made me.

Ah, one last thing. If a movie takes place entirely on a train, there's about a 90 to 95 percent chance that I will like it, and if a murder is involved, that bumps the percentage even higher.

All of this is sort of a roundabout way of saying that for most people, this Night Train is going to be the worst thing on wikipedia's list of entries for things called "night train," and as one who has imbibed it in fortified wine form, that's saying a lot. Nevertheless, there aren't many reviews of this movie up yet, so I thought I'd post my 2 cents (you're overpaying).

The plot of Night Train is not new. I hope it's not too spoily to say that its basic form it shares with Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale," one of my favorites, except that the small cast (consisting of Danny Glover, the conductor of the train, Steve Zahn, a traveling salesman, and Leelee Sobieski, a med-school student, and about five other less important characters) are not a gang of drunken revelers, and they also don't begin with the virtuous intention of killing Death.

That's not exactly to say that the motivations of these three characters are unvirtuous, but instead, like most Americans, they suffer, each alone, invisibly spilling bourgeois tears over the lives they could be living if only they had lots and lots of money. I know their pain. They are my sisters and brothers.

So Christmas eve (of all nights to be unwealthy!) finds Zahn and Sobieski sharing the rear car of the titular train when a mute stranger appears bearing an unusual present. In no time at all, he is dead, courtesy of the lethal interaction of some pills he was taking and one of Zahn's miniature bottles of vodka. For some reason, I think he wanted to die. Morbid curiousities are piqued, and all three (including Glover, who's come for the now-dead man's fare) take a peak inside the box. It contains...another box. But that box contains...the lives they could each be living...lives where they wouldn't have to be successful salesmen or doctors like their parents want...lives where they wouldn't have to be anything other than rich. One sees emeralds, one sees diamonds. Sobieski sees some other kind of gems, presumably. Little do they know, the box is magic or something, passing through history, leaving death and destruction in its wake by seeming to contain the heart's desire of whomever peers inside. "Gems, you saw? How ordinary," contemptfully remarks a later, nameless character who knows about the box. I wonder what he would see. I would see world peace.

Things proceed predictably from there on out. You're never really given the chance to care about the characters, just as they were never given a chance to care about the man who killed himself on Christmas eve. Then, ultimately, the twist is that there is no twist, and everyone dies, including a cross-dresser, an Chinese man and his father who spend most of the movie playing Go, and the little dog too.

If you're looking for a better modern take on the Pardoner's Tale, I'd recommend "A Simple Plan," especially if you're into believability and character development. The acting is much, much better (if you can resist thinking "Game over, man! Game over!" every time you see Bill Paxton), the setting's more desolate and evocative, and the characters start out as friends, so when they turn on each other, it means more. But if you're exactly like me, and you've already seen "A Simple Plan," and there's really nothing else on, and you already drank about half a bottle of wine watching a mostly decent movie and are just looking for something, anything to accompany the second half, then "Night Train" will certainly help you pass the time.

But you don't have to take my word for it.

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