August 28, 2008

Midnight Meat Train (2008 film)

Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura. Written by Jeff Buhler. Based on the short story by Clive Barker.

Leon Kauffman is a young photographer trying to capture the heart of New York City. But, try as he might, he can't sell his work, so he and his waitress girlfriend struggle their way along. Until one night when he photographs a girl who goes missing and finds himself drawn into an ages old conspiracy.

I've been a fan of Bradley Cooper since Alias, so his stunning performance as Leon is no surprise to me. His eagerness and sincerity make it impossible not to worry when his growing obsession for the truth leads him to pursue violence and decay until they sink into his blood, taking away his ability to accept simple pleasures and joy.

Though Leslie Bibb is stuck in the typical girlfriend role of Maya, she gives her performance a depth of honesty I didn't expect. As is typical in films of this type, she sees Leon pulled deeper and deeper in, and her respect for his passion turns to resentment. It dawns on her early that happiness is hard to find in this city, and Leon is the closest she feels she can get, so she'll be damned if she lets him go.

Also along for the ride is Brooke Shields as a sultry and sharp investor who takes an interest in Leon's work. Though they setup some deeper possibilities, none of it is explored as she pretty much disappears from the picture. And Roger Bart is almost completely wasted as Leon's friend Jurgis, who comes off as nothing more than a basic sidekick who pops up when the story requires.

Despite a few snags, the first three quarters of the film are quite good, playing up the overwhelming enormity of the plot Leon finds himself in and the cancerous obsession that pushes him forward, right into the face of a menacing butcher played by Vinnie Jones.

Vinnie Jones is Vinnie Jones. You need a big scary dude, Vinnie is your man. And I'm not knocking him because he does do it well, but isn't the sight of him brutalizing people becoming a little too common place? A little... obvious?

And brutalize people he does. I'm shocked this managed to sneak by with an R rating and wonder if my theater somehow snagged an unrated cut. There's slashing, hacking, smashing, people getting their heads pounded in or torn off. And the film doesn't suggest these things, hiding them behind cuts or clever angles. No, it shows them to us in full view. For example, there's a shot of a man facing the camera as a steel meat hammer drives into the back of his skull, his eyeball popping out and viscera pouring from his mouth and nose... all in slow motion. Though there's a few bits where I think it would have been stronger to imply rather than show, I'm not complaining about the violence. It's all properly within the context of the material. Just be warned.

And then there's the ending...


In the end of the film, we learn this conspiring group of humans have been feeding people to carnivorous creatures in a deep cavern beneath the city. Why? There's no real explanation. No context. And on top of it, they go so overboard with further brutality to the lead and his love, to the point where all the emotions of the moment are squandered. Everything so beautifully set up comes to naught.

In the original story, the creatures were intelligent, part of an ancient, Lovecraftian race who ruled the lands before humanity. They all serve a giant, pulsating mass whose tendrils soak upward into the ground beneath the city streets. The heart. The parasite. Slowly leaching away all life within its grasp.

That's imagery. That's meaning. Here, all we get is some shambling cannibals and the freaky driver.

To toss another thought into the pot, what if they'd done away with the supernatural ending altogether? Would it be a different story? Possibly. Would it be weaker? Depends on execution.

Hear me out. What makes the first three quarters work so well is the sense of this situation getting under Leon's skin, taking root, building into an obsession... a hunger. He kills the butcher, only to take the man's place, as the butcher had with the killer before him, and the killer before him, and so on an so on, further linking the neverending chain of violence. And what if they actually had been mixing the human meat in at the processing plant, feeding the midnight stragglers to the hungry masses of the city?

Sure, it's a bit more of a symbolic twist on the story, but it could have worked better than what we get here.

In the end, it's still an interesting adaptation of a striking short story which, while not entirely successful, does go a little deeper into the meanings behind and effects of brutality than the average horror film. Would it have been successful in theaters? I have no doubt it would have pulled in $8 million on the opening weekend, like most films of its type, but repeat viewings would likely be squandered by the sloppily executed ending.

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