Some key moments in Ryûhei Kitamu's film are so astonishing -- breathtaking actually -- in their ingenious, imaginative presentation that you may be tempted to forgive the trespasses in narrative clarity and the overt lapses in consistency of tone (lapses caused, specifically, by CGI special effects design...) Other moments, particularly a predictable, hackneyed ending, only serve to diminish the good will the film builds up.
The Midnight Meat Train is the story of Leon (Bradley Cooper), an aspiring photographer who hasn't yet found his true artistic voice. After some terse advice ("stay put, be brave, keep shooting...") from a local gallery owner and art connoisseur, Susan (Brooke Shields), Leon proceeds to nurture his dark side.
Accordingly, he begins going out for night shoots on the gloomy, mean streets of the city. On one occasion, Leon even photographs a violent crime in progress, but rescues the victim. Then, circumstances lead Leon to a strange "butcher" (Vinnie Jones), a man who -- every night -- viciously murders passengers on a lonely train car after 2:00 am. He does so using a big, silver meat tenderizer.
Leon delves deeper into the mystery of the butcher -- who seems to be immortal -- and becomes obsessed with the terror he witnesses, much to the chagrin of his supportive girlfriend, Maya (Leslie Bibb). Soon, Leon and Maya are both reckoning with the butcher, and the slowly-dawning realization that the killer is part of an underground, secret society...one with the full support and assistance of the metropolitan police.
Ultimately, The Midnight Meat Train serves as a literalization of the famous Friedrich Nietzsche quotation, "when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." By seeking out the ugly side of human nature for personal gain (artistic success, money and fame...), Leon gives up, in a very real and permanent sense, his humanity. The dark is not something to be toyed with, and there are consequences for Leon's "stolen" shots of Evil.
In keeping with this Nietzschean motif, Kitamu does an extraordinary job capturing the alienating vibe and heartbeat of a modern city at night. It's a world of fluorescent lights, hellish steam rising from sewers and inscrutable strangers going about their secret business. If you've ever walked a deserted city street late at night, Leon's journey into the urban heart of darkness will resonate with you. There's a rapturous feeling of both freedom and anonymity here; the scintillating possibility that around one corner you could find salvation; around another...damnation. But it's your choice which route to take, and you don't really understand the ramifications of your destination until you get there. The Midnight Meat Train is at its best when it plays off this idea.
After about the one hour point, however, the movie's hypnotic spell starts to crumble a bit, and Leon takes on the perpetual blank stare of a zombie, his true thoughts now as inscrutable and unavailable as those of the speechless butcher. There's a very good reason for this characterization in terms of plot, but the result is a burgeoning sense of distance from the narrative.
As viewers, we find ourselves getting ahead of the story and figuring out where it is headed (even if we don't know how or why...). Genre films thrive on surprises, shocks and twists, and it's never a good thing when you have the time to put all the pieces together in your mind. So The Midnight Meat Train really falters in the last act. Even the discovery of a (hungry) Lovecraftian-style social hierarchy and a frenetic outburst of depraved brutality and violence (culminating with a ripped out tongue...) can't rescue the film from the grinding predictability of the final shots.
Although The Midnight Meat Train deserves praise for some truly amazing and pioneering visuals, even these are hit and miss. There's an early murder set-piece on the train involving Ted Raimi, for instance. The CGI special effects are so terrible, so thoroughly unconvincing that they rip you out of the film's carefully-constructed feeling of dread. One awful shot (of Raimi losing both eyes, in slow motion, in a torrent of digital blood) is so incompetent, so bad, you start to think the movie is designed as a joke, one headed down the path of parody. If featured just quickly, this moment might have worked better, but in full-on slow-motion photography, the moment lingers...and the movie loses you.
Yet -- in the very same scene -- Kitamu stages a decapitation in the most imaginative, dazzling way I've seen. He adopts the perspective of the severed head, and, it's a crazy, terrifying ride. In microcosm, this scene explains everything that is wrong and right with the movie. One moment is terrible; the next is inspired.
I understand that digital effects are "the thing" these days in the horror genre, but in a film so much about meat -- about flesh -- it seems that the "butchering" scenes should feel especially grounded in reality, anchored in the texture of blood, bone and skin. On occasion -- in fairness -- they are. There's a short, disgusting and effective scene (shot in attentive, unblinking close-up) in which the butcher removes the eyeballs, teeth and fingernails of a victim...and you can almost smell the horror of the abattoir.
But the over-reliance on CGI for other critical kill scenes saddles the film with a cartoon-ish feel that runs opposite to the very thematic core of the story. After all, much is made here of the fact that Leon is a vegetarian (he even brings his own tofu to a local grill...), and that the further he delves into the terror of the butcher, the more he is drawn to meat.
The movie's bloody effects should mirror or augment that journey; they should be...gristly and bound to the laws of gravity, not weightless and recognizably computer generated. In one scene, there's so much digital blood spray flying about that it actually distracts you from the action. That's unconscionable in a production that has toiled so hard to create the reality of a rolling, subterranean urban slaughterhouse. I am never one to declare that special effects are the end all and be all of a film, but when special effects are so inappropriately rendered that they actually undercut the very thematic conceit of a film, there's a big problem.
The Midnight Meat Train is promising, if inconsistent. I understand why it has been welcomed with open arms by so many horror critics I respect. There's so much that's good -- and downright dazzling -- here, you hate to see it undone by poorly-conceived effects and a grinding mechanical ending that recalls, more than anything else, The Sentinel (1977). You want to love this film -- the speeding descent into a subterranean, urban hell -- but you end up just kind of feeling numb to it all.
Call me a conflicted passenger. I started out really enjoying this journey, but it ended up being just another commute...