Night Train (I) (2009)
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The story is about three strangers whose lives intersect while traveling at night on a train during the Christmas holidays. Sobieski is Chloe, a biology/med student unhappy with her future prospects of following a career not of her choosing. Danny Glover is the aging conductor whose family is desperately in need of additional financial support that he cannot provide. Zahn is a wannabe salesman whose life story seems to be one of alcohol abuse and failure. The story swirls around these strangers as they try to hold onto a box of riches which can fulfill their dreams.
Although obviously a low budget production, the suspense is well paced, the action sequences are timed perfectly and the characters are all empathetic (especially Glover's character, the conductor). Only one fault I find with the movie is a couple of minutes of totally unnecessary gore. Otherwise a solid piece of film making and storytelling.
A train has stopped in the darkness during a snowstorm and two conductors, one of them Danny Glover in decent-guy mode, are on the tracks smoking when a man clutching a package stumbles out of the woods. The conductors allow him on board with the understanding he'll buy his ticket later. Once aboard, the stranger settles in a lounge car, where he swallows a bunch of pills, washing them down with vodka. Next thing you know, he's dead of an overdose.
Only two other people were in the lounge car to witness this, an alcoholic salesman played by Steve Zahn in his usual goofball-loser mode and a medical student with a studious, ultra-serious demeanor played by Sobieski. They call the death to the attention of the conductor played by Glover.
They become curious about the man's package and look inside. It contains a small wooden box with perforations allowing them to see what's inside, which is apparently worth a king's ransom because everybody who looks inside gasps in wonder. This is our macguffin and it serves much the same purpose as the briefcase in "Pulp Fiction." It doesn't really matter what's inside; you just know everybody wants it.
The three conspire. First order of business -- disposing of the body (black, black humor). Then things get complicated. Turns out the three conspirators are not the only ones who knew the stranger was on the train with his package. You know nothing good is going to come of this and you are absolutely right. Betrayal. Mayhem. Murder.
In order to enjoy this movie, you have to overlook a lot of major implausibilities. For such a long train, there's hardly anyone aboard. Plot points involving night ice fishing and murderous electrical tape are also hard to swallow.
All the exteriors of the train hurtling down the track at what looks like 200 mph are cheap CGI. Doesn't matter. We get it -- fast train, darkness, lots of snow, in the middle of nowhere.
And then there's Leelee Sobieski, icily delivering lines with blood on her face and insanity in her eyes. Whoa.
Night Train is basically a chamber piece. The whole story takes place within the compartments of a long train riding relentlessly through the darkness on Christmas eve. All the exterior shots are rather cheap looking CGI of the passenger train going ahead in the snow blizzard which in itself is not distracting, on the contrary - the darkness outside increases the gloomy, disturbing atmosphere inside the train. The set design is problematic though. The interior of the train makes it look like we're in the past, early in the last century. I was under the impression that that was the case - even the way people dress in the movie fueled this conviction - but then around 40 minutes into the film one of the characters uses a cell phone.
Although the tech credits are okay, by the look of the inside of the train I could see the film was shot somewhere in Eastern Europe and firing up IMDb I saw I was right. So it's not the dodgy CGI but the unnecessarily confusing set design what gives away the low budget of the film.
Plotwise it's all seen it all before. Many people refer to Shallow Grave in the threads here - yes, the setup recalls that movie, but then halfway through the story it takes a turn into a far more mysterious direction. Problem is, up until that time the plot is very predictable and goes through the usual motions (albeit in fast forward, given the time constraints) as characters debate what to do with the dead body and the loot, begin to act suspiciously to each other and to outsiders then ultimately turn on each other. This mechanical plot takes over from characterization, so after the twist in the midpoint when events become less predictable it's hard to really care because the characters remain thin and uninteresting.
Acting is okay, Danny Glover gives a low-key performance that suits the purposes of the film, while Zahn apparently tries to bring out the best of his clichéd role. Leelee Sobielski is quite convincing at first with her deadpan reactions and attitude but later gives a kind of performance which is borderline comic - I am not sure if this was intentional.
The unfortunate set design and some grave credibility issues (I am no expert of US police procedure but the way a detective handles the situation later on in the film seems quite ridiculous, plus even on Christmas it is hard to imagine only a handful of people would take a train that has a dozen carriages, a working bar and kitchen but no other staff than two attendants) make this a slightly worse than average movie.
I don't know if it's because I went into the movie with low expectations, but I actually enjoyed it. The acting was fine; I have definitely seen Danny Glover in better roles, but Sobieski actually wasn't terrible & I thought Steve Zahn did a great job. It was suspenseful and interesting with some nice plot twists. I didn't like the kind of supernatural twist the film took near the end, but it was a good fun movie to watch.