Unstoppable, by David Bax
The opening titles of Omid Nooshin’s Last Passenger – which depict a train’s point of view as it zooms through an unpeopled nightscape of steel tracks and the occasional bright warning light – have a grainy, murky, low-tech throwback feel. Even the titles themselves seem to be from a different era, reminiscent as they are of Alien, another film about a group of people trapped on a large vehicle.
Last Passenger follows Dr. Lewis Shaler (Dougray Scott), a widower taking the train back home from London with his young son, Max (Joshua Kaynama). They’ve just seen a musical and are heading out rather late. Their follower passengers are mostly young and drunk but, as the partiers file off at successive stops, eventually the Shalers’ only companions are Sarah (Kara Tointon), a young woman who ditched her friends at a club and is looking forward to a quiet night at home; Jan (Iddo Goldberg), an Eastern European man who menaces the crew and the other riders; Peter (David Schofield), a stern and arrogant workaholic businessman; and Elaine (Lindsay Duncan), a retired woman looking forward to visiting her grandchildren. Whittled down to this core cargo, the train begins to skip the stops. Our protagonists notice that the train’s crew has disappeared and the person driving may very well not be the conductor. They must figure out how to stop or exit the diesel train before it either skips the track or comes to a spectacular, explosive stop at the end of the line.
In the mode of the 1970s thrillers from which it takes its influence, Last Passenger starts as an immersive and intriguing slow burn. We get to know our leads. We see how the wounded and grieving Lewis can be overprotective of his son, even to the disregard of the boy’s feelings. We see the spark of interest between him and Sarah and we watch it grow into a mature, sexy flirtation. Yet even in these moments, Nooshin never lets us get out of sight of the lurking darkness. He drops hints that these people are not safe (the doors are liable to come open at 70 miles per hour) and introduces possible villains (some of them red herrings, some of them not) to keep the danger at a boil. Repeatedly, he frames Lewis with Max cropped out of the shot. We think we know the child is still in his seat but can we be sure? Is he safe? We are allowed firm knowledge of the spatial specificity of the few train cars but that certainty doesn’t make us feel comfortable. Rather, we are all the more claustrophobic for knowing how limited the characters’ options are.
It also helps to know the limitations of the characters themselves. They certainly have some, just like all of us. Part of the pleasure of Last Passenger is watching these people overcome their notions and prejudices. Each character is given enough shading – not to mention some playfully dense dialogue – for the actors to submerge themselves in the parts. Scott plays Lewis as someone who sees the world as being full of people he can save; Tointon plays Sarah whose world-weariness is a mask for loneliness; Goldberg plays Jan as someone convinced everything has dismissed him as a thug; Schofield plays Peter as someone who stands in smug judgment of those who haven’t applied themselves enough to rise to his professional level.
If these all sound like unpleasant people, that’s both true and not. Again, the screenplay is a joy, especially in the care of this cast. But the deeper engine of Last Passenger is a humanistic impulse, the belief that we can improve ourselves and our lot by working together and even sacrificing for one another when necessary. Though it may, with its runaway train premise, seem like a story of man versus machine, Nooshin never lets us forget that there’s person driving this train to oblivion.
In a melancholic moment when defeat threatens to settle in, Jan intones with his heavy accent, “If people keep doing things that is bad for them, perhaps they become extinct.” In Nooshin’s tense and thrilling man-versus-man pressure crooker of a movie, humanity is both the devil and, if pushed hard enough, the savior.