The setting is Christmas Eve, and that’s about all we know; the place and timeframe are strangely indeterminate, and the opening scenes are so streamlined that it almost feels like we’re joining the picture already in progress. Danny Glover is Miles, the conductor on a sparsely-populated late night train; med student Chloe (Leelee Sobieski) and traveling salesman Peter (Steve Zahn) are two of the passengers, killing time in the rear lounge car. A man with a Christmas package stumbles in to their car, downs some pills and chases them with some of Zahn’s vodka, and promptly dies. When the trio checks him out, they discover a mysterious box inside the holiday wrapping; what’s inside the box is valuable enough to make them wonder what would happen if the traveler just, well, disappeared.
These set-up scenes, and the trio’s grisly point of no return, have the marks of a decent little thriller (like Zahn and Sobieski’s previous collaboration, Joy Ride, or the similarly-plotted Shallow Grave), briskly paced with a nicely macabre sense of humor. We’re playing in Hitchcock territory here, with clear references to Strangers on a Train and The Lady Vanishes, but we’ve seen enough movies to know that disposing of the stranger is just the start of their troubles—the situation careens away from them, Simple Plan-style, so covering up one body means there will be another, and another, and so on.
The trouble with King’s screenplay is that as their plan goes out of control, so does the movie. He’s not content with the falling-dominoes story structure set up in the first act; he tries, unsuccessfully, to slam in some supernatural elements (they are, to put it charitably, an awkward fit) while amping up the carnage, nearly turning the third act into a riff on Terror Train. And the final scene, which seems to want to replicate the closing scene of Raiders on a much, much smaller scale, doesn’t play at all.
In addition, some of the filmmaking is troublesome. A cutaway of the dead man shows him very clearly breathing, and the odd, over-processed glow of the cinematography is just plain peculiar. But the least successful element of the film is the train exteriors, which are comprised entirely of singularly unconvincing CGI. Plainly put, when the film cuts from the stage replicas of train cars to the establishing shots of the train roaring through the nighttime countryside, it’s like we’re flipping back and forth from a live action movie to a cartoon. The filmmakers attempt to cover up the sloppy work by keeping the shots dark and snowy, but it’s not gonna fool you: that is a mighty fake-looking train, made even more obvious in the unfortunate sequence where Glover and Zahn toss a suitcase from the moving train and their badly staged platform shots have to intermingle with the poorly rendered CG footage. (On the other hand, Hitchcock kept using bad process shots well into the 1970s, so maybe it was a shout-out.)
The performances are a little uneven. Danny Glover’s role doesn’t require him to do much more than be calm and wise, and he can do both admirably, but he and director King muffle the scene where his character knows they’ve gone too far; all that’s written is for him to look vacant, and that’s pretty much all he does. Zahn is always an engaging presence, but he basically just plays frantic and/or greedy (and the jokes about his profession get old, and fast).
The nicest surprise is the snazzy performance of Leelee Sobieski. Her low-energy underplaying doesn’t always land, but there’s a kick to her work here, a kinkiness; she’s having a good time being bad. Her Chloe is tough to get a read on; she’s resourceful as hell and not easily thrown, and there’s a terrific moment in which she deadpans her lines to Glover as blood is splattered across her face and glasses. As the film progresses, she slowly peels away layers of her character (and, fetchingly, her costumes), and while the turns of her character may not make a helluva lot of sense, she commits to them. It’s fun to watch her go, even if the editor hangs her out to dry, acting-wise, at the climax.
Night Train is such an uneven mixture that I can't quite bring myself to recommend it, but it's too intriguingly batty to dismiss outright. It's not a timid picture, that's for sure; King's helter-skelter energy and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink storytelling style doesn't quite pull together into anything coherent, but with the right material, he may be a new filmmaker worth watching out for.
"Night Train" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, July 7.