Night Train (1999)
A Journey to Hell in Night Train By Guy Savage
“Good judgment is a hard thing to men like Joey Butcher. It doesn’t matter who they are and what they’ve done. Hard luck and bitter circumstance get in the way.”
Modern noir film has two things in its favor: improved film technique and different standards for censorship, so in theory, neo noir should look better and could, potentially include more sex, more violence, blatant perversion and endings that don’t necessarily include the bad guys getting their just desserts delivered by the good guys. And Night Train from director Les Bernstien exemplifies just how far an updated noir film can go in terms of looks, presentation and plot.
First-time director Les Bernstien has an impressive back ground as a visual effects director of photography (Contact, Escape from L.A., Fight Club) and in Night Train, he appears to take everything he knows and uses it in this low-budget, low-life neo noir set in a sleazy corner of Tijuana. Mexico is a favorite setting for film noir. Classic noir icon Robert Mitchum often washed up south of the border. But in Night Train, tame Tijuana of the 40s and 50s is replaced and the film’s voice over narration explains:
“Down town Tijuana—a real nice place in its day. It catered to the best. Bullfighters, celebrities wanting a drink and a girl. Runaways wanting a new career.”
But this patina of respectable tourism has vanished and Bernstein’s Tijuana is the town where whores are cheap and people disappear in this no-holes barred playground for perversion. Bernstien doesn’t try to hide the fact that the story centres on the dregs of Tijuana society--in fact he seems to wallow in the gutter, opting to make the story as ugly as possible while simultaneously presenting that ugliness and converting it to beauty with exquisite camera shots, deep inky blacks and incredible use of light and shadow. The first shots of Tijuana include a bullfight in a packed arena and a shoeless woman stopping traffic as she humps an ambulance in meaningless, rhythmic motions. Whether a mystery key is retrieved from human excrement or a man vomits in the toilet, the camera captures it all--every horrifying shot and then delivers it with exquisite perfection.
Just as the plot embraces the tawdry and cheap side of life, the film’s presentation boldly embraces its low budget with a musical score that’s a cross between Ennio Morricone and the Ventures. In another brilliant stroke, dialogue was re-recorded against the original background noises in a process called “looping” and this replaced dialogue also serves to complement the film’s strange texture.
The plot is startling simple. Ex-con, Joey Butcher (John Voldstad) takes the night train to Tijuana to hook up with his brother Zach (also played by Voldstad). It may be “next stop, Tijuana,” but in reality it’s all aboard for a trip to hell. Joey received a telegram from Zach telling him to join him at the appropriately named Hotel Colon, “the center of the universe.” Once in Tijuana, Joey meets “resident American” the film’s narrator, Sam (Barry Cutler) a ferret-faced drifter who tells him that Zach is dead--killed as the result of a hit-and-run accident. Unable to return to America because he “did something bad,” Joey is committed to staying in Tijuana and discovering the truth about his brother’s death, and this brings him to the attention of a deviant dwarf, a homicidal stripper, and a snuff film ring.
As the days pass, Joey begins to undergo a physical transformation. Since everything from booze to women is “so damn cheap” he can lead a fairly unrestricted life. This results in constant drinking which leaves him with black ringed eyes and a stumbling gait as he careens from one trouble spot to another. Joey is on an endless roller coaster ride of alcoholic binges while women parade in and out of his room, and sweaty Joey, who packs a substantial gut, isn’t picky. Prostitutes, the vengeful stripper, Bobby (Nikoletta Skarlatos), and even Mary-Lou (Donna Pieroni), the hotel’s resident psycho all have sex with Joey and a few scenes show Joey laying in a half drunken stupor while he’s coyly teased, titillated and tweaked into performance by women grimly determined to ride him to the finish line. Forget love. Forget romance. Instead sex is an urge that’s met with a grubby encounter, a lackluster performance, and no illusions. As Bobby says, “We’re not married. I gave you a free fuck. Now go away.”
The film’s fantastic nightmarish hallucination sequences rival those of Stranger on the Third Floor, but in Night Train, the ghoulish nightmares take place in the whirl of toilet bowl water. Using bold phantasmagorical scenes reminiscent of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Night Train is a clear illustration of film noir’s debt to German Expressionism. From the film’s opening scene of a breathtaking, spectacular shot of a bridge, this extraordinary, stunning visual adventure shows us just how magical the camera can be. The film’s incredible nightmare sequences are packed with symbolism--train tracks cross, merge and graveyards beckon. In one nightmare scene Joey crawls through a shrunken room across a mismatched geometrically patterned floor while other scenes are transposed on top for a layering effect. The film subtly foreshadows Joey’s fate by comparing Joey to the confused and weary bull trapped in the arena. Scenes of the slaughtered bull being dragged from the ring are juxtaposed with flashes of the disoriented Joey as he crawls across the floor, grunting and groaning.
As the film continues, Joey’s life becomes as bad as his nightmares. The film’s juxtaposition of nightmares and nightmarish reality and the symbolic merging and crossing of train tracks emphasize the idea that in Tijuana, Joey’s already marginal life has merged into a hellish existence. The sense that Tijuana is devoid of traditional societal boundaries transfuses into the film’s bizarre fabric, and effectively reinforces Night Train’s hypnotic circulus in which repulsiveness blends into beauty, nightmares merge into reality, and evil merges into good.
Night Train won’t appeal to all viewers. It’s an ugly tale, deliberately rough in spots and as cheap as the wasted lives it portrays. Bernstien doesn’t glamorize his characters or their environment, and neither does he glamorize their actions. There are no good guys in Night Train’s morally bankrupt universe, but by the time the film concludes, the thoroughly unpleasant Joey Butcher, who viciously tortures a man in the first scene, will begin to look like a boy scout in comparison to the other freaks, lowlifes, scumbags and murderers who surround him. Joey becomes a hero of sorts in a High-Plains-Drifter fucked-up way as he begins to grasp the horrifying truth about his brother’s Tijuana business interests. There are, after all, some depths that even low-life, violent career criminals won’t stoop to, and it’s down in Tijuana that Joey discovers a boundary even he won’t cross.