La Bete Humaine: Runaway Train
by Graham Daseler
Bright Lights Film Journal
Where would movies be without trains? The birth of the former, dated, for the sake of convenience, at December 28, 1895, in the Grand Café in Paris, was followed, only a few short weeks later, by the first screen appearance of the latter, the flickering arrival of which, depending on whom you talk to, may or may not have frightened early viewers into scurrying for the aisles.1 Historians who accept this story as fact most often use it as an object lesson in the power of cinema over the human imagination, whereas I see it more as an object lesson in the power of the train. Is it just a coincidence that the experiences of movie-going and train travel are so similar? Both have a set beginning and end, both take you to distant realms, yet have a fixed and unalterable course, and both are intensely individual experiences — allowing for observation, thought, and dreaminess — carried out in a public space. Stage a movie on a train, therefore, and you give your narrative not only direction and momentum but a sympathetic audience, as well. And then, of course, there's so much to do on trains. They're big enough to hide on, as in The Narrow Margin (1952), or to hide someone else on, as in The Lady Vanishes (1938), but small enough to bar escape should somebody come looking for you, as in The 39 Steps (1935). They can be tools for good, as in The Train (1964), or ill, as in Night Train to Munich (1940). Getting off them is notoriously difficult, as shown in Silver Streak (1976) but so is getting back on: ditto. They are, in short, the ideal vehicle for a movie plot: fast, sleek, dangerous, both opulent and mechanical, the conveyance of choice for artists as disparate as Preston Sturges, Alfred Hitchcock, and Buster Keaton, the last of whom once rode the connecting rods between wheels as nonchalantly as a though he were sitting on a park bench.
Since the decline of the railroad, American filmmakers have had to travel further afield to work trains into their narratives. Wes Anderson was forced all the way to India to find a plausible excuse for a rail trip in The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and in Unstoppable (2010) Denzel Washington and Chris Pine went even farther than that, to the remote corners of probability. This, of course, is dispiriting news for aficionados of the genre. Despite a recent flurry of activity — The Polar Express (2004), Transsiberian (2008), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) — the last thirty years have been a mostly stagnant period for the iron horse. At least, that is, with one crucial exception. When I think of the train movie at its glorious peak, at its most thrilling and wondrous, I think not of the velveteen sumptuousness of Shanghai Express (1932), nor the sooty realism of La Bete Humaine (1938) — though in a pinch they'll certainly do — but of a little-known masterpiece from the mid-1980s called Runaway Train (1985)
The story takes place in Alaska, during the dead of winter. Jon Voight plays Manny, a safecracker serving time in Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison. Revered by the other inmates and renowned for his multiple escape attempts, he has spent the last three years locked in solitary confinement by his nemesis, Associate Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), a petty tyrant of the same breed as Kurtz and Ahab, ruling over the prison as he would his own personal fiefdom. When a court order forces Ranken to release Manny from his cell, Manny makes his break, stealing away in a laundry cart pushed by Buck (Eric Roberts), a none-too-bright young convict who, overjoyed by the opportunity to join his idol, decides to tag along. After crawling through a sewer, braving the rapids of a freezing river, and trudging across a frozen wasteland, they stagger into a rail yard and hop a freight train, hoping to flee the state as fast as possible. As things turn out, this may be faster than they imagined, for, unbeknownst to the pair, the engineer has dropped dead of a heart attack, leaving the train unmanned and barreling at high-speed through the arctic wilderness. From here, the plot splits in three: on one side, we have the prisoners, joined by a lone rail worker, Sara (Rebecca De Mornay), desperately fighting to reach the lead locomotive; on the other, the railway dispatchers, struggling, with increasing futility, to clear the tracks before its path; and on the third, Ranken, hell-bent on recovering his prisoners whatever the cost.
Needless to say, this is a far cry from the breezy thrills of The Great Escape (1963), not to mention the soaring pathos of The Shawshank Redmption (1994). Filmed under constantly leaden skies, with howling winds and snowdrifts as far as the eye can see, the movie makes Nanook of the North (1922) look like The Thief of Bagdad (1924). The film feels cold. Watch it on a blistering afternoon in July, and you'll feel cold. Such boreal conditions permeate not just the setting but the hearts of the protagonists, as well. The movie takes as its epigraph a line from Richard lll — two lines, actually, combined into one — spoken between Lady Anne and Richard. "No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity," Anne scolds the scheming hunchback, to which Richard, unfazed, replies: "But I know none, and therefore am no beast." It's a cunning distinction, counting both as a clever riposte and a brutally honest admission, and one that could easily have been written specifically for Manny, a man of beastly parts if ever there was one. When we first encounter him, he is literally caged in the dark, confined to a cell with the doors welded shut, and in our last impression of him from that scene all we can see are his eyes and the glint of his metal tooth in the dark. Indeed, he's more teeth than talk, with a vicious snarl and a rather hideous laugh. It's a daring performance: impassioned, larger than life, yet seeking little sympathy. In his early roles, Voight often seemed hampered by his own good looks; that doughy face and flaxen hair made him ideal for playing yokels (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) or earnest, mild-mannered types (Deliverance, 1972), but undoubtedly hurt his chances at getting more edgy parts like Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle. By the mid-eighties, though, time had sanded away the baby fat. His cheeks creased and reddened, the youthful beefcake gained menace to go with his lumberjack's physique. He towers over Roberts like a tree, his heft and poise making the younger man seem slight and squirrely by comparison. Voight's great accomplishment, though, is to make Manny a knowing monster, like Richard intelligent enough to observe himself with some contempt but unwilling to change his own nature. His diatribe to Buck on the possibilities available to an ex-con ("You're gonna get a little job, some job a convict can get, like scraping off trays in a cafeteria or cleaning out toilets…") is both a masterpiece of fury and a pitiless look in the mirror. "Could you do that kind of shit?" Buck derisively asks, too proud to consider it himself. "I wish I could," Manny whispers regretfully. "I wish I could." Yet, when provoked, he turns on Buck and beats him with a ferocity that would have shocked John Webster. "You're an animal!" Sara admonishes him, to which Manny, who has seen his fair share of animals, has a simple Richard-like reply: "No, worse: human."
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