Jim Jarmusch‘s dreamy black-and-white anti-Western stars Johnny Depp as a mild-mannered accountant named William Blake en route from Cleveland, Ohio to California to take a job with industrial entrepreneur John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum); the first leg of his strange journey involves a lengthy cross-country train ride, where his fellow passengers get seedier and more dangerous-looking the further west he travels. The tedium of the journey is intercut with startling extreme close-ups of the train’s wheels grinding against the tracks, set to the dark electric twang of Neil Young’s spare guitar-driven score, giving even the boredom of 19th-century cross-country travel a sense of bizarre urgency as our hero goes further into unfamiliar territory. The sequence ends with a tense conversation between Blake and the soot-covered Train Fireman (Crispin Glover) that’s cut short by the rest of the passengers suddenly shooting their rifles out the windows at a herd of buffalo… yes, you’re definitely not in Cleveland anymore, Mr. Blake. And this is just the opening of Dead Man — it gets even weirder and more wondrous from there.
A woman (Margaret Lockwood) wakes up on a train en route to England via Central Europe and is startled to find the elderly governess she’s befriended (Dame Mae Whitty) has suddenly vanished without a trace. What’s even creepier is that almost everyone else on the train tries to convince the confused Lockwood that the woman never existed. Yeah, the same premise was used in the Jodie Foster thriller, Flightplan, but as that film was clumsy and ludicrous, The Lady Vanishes is actually one of Hitchcock’s best — in fact, the success of this film allowed him to negotiate a sweet deal to leave England and start making movies in Hollywood. A taut, tense and terrific thriller, even if the ultimate revelation of what happened to the vanishing lady in question is a bit hard to swallow.
The kids of American Beauty ended up not quite having the careers we thought they would after starring in one of 1999’s most celebrated films, seemingly doomed to appear in direct-to-video thrillers and B-movie schlock. We thought at least Thora Birch would have a shot at the big time after her impressive turns in both Beauty and Ghost World, but alas, here she is, stuck on a train hurtling through Eastern Europe with some college wrestlers, fighting for their lives as they try to evade sicko torturers. It’s basically Hostel on tracks; if you like this sort of stuff (and we know some of you do), Train definitely delivers the blood, guts and deviant anti-social behavior. This was originally supposed to be a remake of Terror Train, the 1980 horror flick starring Jamie Lee Curtis; it ended up being its own twisted, trainy thing.
An old-fashioned, Twilight Zone-ish morality tale that slowly and methodically unravels its twisty-turny plot, Night Train stars Steve Zahn and Leelee Sobieski as train riders who team up with the conductor (Danny Glover) to make the body of a suddenly-dead passenger disappear so they can keep the box of jewels found on his person; this bad idea turns into an even worse situation as the damn box is apparently cursed, dooming those who would dare gaze upon its riches to corruption and death before dawn. What could’ve been a simple genre flick ended up being an intriguing chamber piece with a playful sense of theatricality; indeed, Night Train has more in common with existential stage works such as Sartre’s No Exit than cinematic mysteries like Strangers on a Train or Murder on the Orient Express. And you’ll be expecting Rod Serling to show up any second.
It’s not quite The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but what ever possibly could be, really? Frank & Jesse is a rough and tumble and highly enjoyable take on the story of Frank (Bill Paxton) and Jesse James (Rob Lowe), who return home to a defeated South and promptly become notorious outlaws upon the murder of their younger brother. Allan Pinkerton (William Atherton) is the lawman hot on their trail, looking to stop their spree of stagecoach, bank and, of course, train robberies (Jesse’s personal favorite form of law-breaking). As ’90s Westerns go, this one’s actually pretty good, with some expertly staged heist scenes and shootouts courtesy of director Robert Boris. The cast is pretty damn good, too; Paxton was, of course, born to be in Westerns, and Lowe (who worked with Boris in the underrated ’80s comedy, Oxford Blues) — ever one of our most underrated actors — nails it as the charismatic but probably half-psycho Jesse. And who would’ve thought that Atherton, so good at playing pain-in-the-ass characters in Ghostbusters and Die Hard, would make such a good hero-type? Ride ‘em, cowboy!