Blu-ray Review: Night Train (2009)

On DVD & Blu-ray 7/7
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Unfortunately, while I just couldn't get on board with National Entertainment Media's recent release Baby on Board-- the second direct-to-disc offering Night Train (already available for rental at Blockbuster before hitting other chains for sale and rent in July) is a vastly superior work. Additionally, it's also one that you're able to board quite easily as a film fan and then uneasily as you try to figure it all out.

Not quite a horror film due to some clever cuts to shield us from obvious gore nor purely a morality play as mythological ideas and suspense fueled double crosses are woven throughout, at its core, Night Train is essentially a chamber piece.

Furthermore it's one that aside from the scope of the train setting could've actually been played out on the stage as it centers on a main trio of strangers who meet out of random chance around Christmas when they find themselves aboard the Nightingale.

Easily gravitating towards Danny Glover as our main protagonist since he is the conductor (and Danny Glover) and must ensure that all things are running smoothly-- the movie immediately gets us on his side when he lets a strange, troubled, pill-popping foreigner on board without money or a ticket because it's Christmas after all and the weather outside is frightful.

He takes a seat in the same car as a drunk, unhappy, and unsuccessful salesman Peter Dobbs (Steve Zahn) and a bookish pre-med student Chloe (Leelee Sobieski) who pours over gruesome anatomy texts. Yet just moments after he pops more pills courtesy of one of Peter's mini bottles of vodka, the stranger goes out for the count-- a nameless corpse in a train car on Christmas.

While the two passengers and Glover's Miles try to ascertain what happened and get ready to alert the authorities, a box tumbles out of the dead man's belongings revealing an overwhelmingly valuable treasure that-- after some moral hemming and hawing-- the three decide to split three ways.

Realizing that since the man never had a ticket, they could just imagine he was never there in the first place-- soon the trio scheme to get rid of the body to claim the treasure as their own as their interest in the box increases in equal measure to their anxieties and suspicions about one another.

For although this initial and literal stranger on the train is the Nightingale's first corpse, he's far from its last as others show up looking for the box, passengers grow more concerned and the three reveal aspects about themselves one would never have guessed.

Admittedly it's a familiar premise that feels at once like we're moving right into A Simple Plan or Shallow Grave territory but suddenly, the filmmaker mixes things up considerably by giving us a new meaning to the term "pandora's box" as Night Train barrels on to a devastating conclusion.

And in writer/director Brian King's feature filmmaking debut, everything feels eerie from the start of a work with a time and setting you're never quite sure about as the overly CGI looking train footage (ghoulish and supernatural like the unintentional but creepy tinged look of Robert Zemeckis' Polar Express) pops right along with the snow in 1080 pixels.

At once, Night Train is a throwback to vintage film noir and classic Hitchcock like The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train and North By Northwest or as King cites in an extra feature, John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon. In the same turn it is also one that knows its cinematic history well with nods to countless works like Murder on the Orient Express utilized throughout a script that was created out of King's affection for the use of trains in old cinema.

Of course, trains themselves can be a metaphor for life (as Glover noted) since they're forever moving and changing as people make choices to get on or off but nonetheless they can be confining and claustrophobic all at the same.

In the standard definition extras-- over fifty minutes in all that's more than half of the film's 91 minute running time-- actress Leelee Sobieski makes an intriguing leap between the three actors (including herself) whom she explains are both "weird collectively... and individually." She cites this decision to cast the very different talents alongside each other as something that heightened the idea of the movie's treasured box being like a toy the three are fighting over in a sandbox.

She's quite right in that it's the characters that drive the piece and Zahn himself chimes in during his solo interview with a similar preference that instead of the treasure or a more clearly defined setting, we're mainly fixated on the three rather strange individuals who together craft the film into a simple, old fashioned American fable or myth.

I couldn't help but realize that in doing so and avoiding specific genre trappings, the need to wrap things up concretely or explain everything too much, King shows that he respects our intelligence enough for viewers to try and get to know the individuals as though we're strangers on the train as well watching the horrific events unfold in near real time.

While admittedly, after a few abysmally bad B-movie thrillers, I wasn't expecting much from the film that skipped the theatre and premiered straight on disc. However, honestly given the dark and uncertain nature of the piece as it slowly moves into Philip K. Dick meets Franz Kafka territory-- although it seems like it would've been a natural for perhaps Lionsgate or Summit Entertainment, I completely understand the lack of a major distributor to put a huge marketing campaign behind a film they can't quite sell as horror or any specified genre.

Although it's definitely not of the caliber of last year's brilliant train thriller Transsiberian-- it's quite a gripping ride that draws you in and doesn't let you step onto the platform easily. For you know that ultimately you're going to have to jumped off-- still dazed and confused by all that's come before it especially since and truer to real life perhaps than films where strangers suddenly tell each other everything in two minutes flat-- we're still not certain who Conductor Miles, Chloe, or Peter were by the time the movie ends.

An unexpected summer sleeper also produced by A-Mark Entertainment, FilmTiger, Rifkin Eberts and Cutting Edge-- the Blu-ray release from National Entertainment Media is exquisitely sharp with heightened artistic external shots that aside from feeling overly digitized add to the ambiance overall. Also featuring Spanish and English subtitles for the deaf and/or hearing imparied as well as impressive-- if not explosive-- DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio and 5.1 Dolby Digital with its widescreen 1.78: 1 aspect ratio-- although the extras are only in standard 480i definition, they're well worth exploring despite a repetition in the interviews and the making-of-featurette footage.

However, you'll want to be sure to view the film before looking for more treasures since spoilers come tumbling out in the extras within an instant. While I may have been an ideal audience member for the movie since much like King, I have a soft-spot for Hitchcock, noir and a genuine fondness for trains on film since the mystery, romance, danger, and metaphors aren't nearly as irresistible in a car, plane, bus, or subway-- it's a ride that I'd recommend taking. And it's definitely all the more enjoyable if you're an experienced ticket holder who's climbed aboard its many cinematic inspirations to be had in journeys of movies past.