Cahiers du Cannon: Runaway Train

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Previously on Cahiers du Cannon, Guest Star Jessica Ritchey wrote about Castaway (1986) and Street Smart (1987).

One of the queasier aspects of life in the early 21st century is the internet’s ability to annoint a hero and tear them to pieces minutes later. Someone is found to have done something heroic or charming and then a flaw, sometimes a significant one, is found about them and they are shoved off that unasked for pedestal with a vengeance. The stripping down of experience to 140 characters and the need for simple data in a torrent of information has eroded our ability to take in people’s complexities. We don’t oblige ourselves with pure, uncomplicated intentions and actions. There are pieces of the hero and the villain in us. We do selfish things that end up helping others, we act in what think is for someone else’s best interest and end up hurting them terribly. The people who save the day are rarely who we want them to be, and few films mine more drama from that than 1985’s Runaway Train.

Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky from a script by Akira Kurosawa that was adapted and rewritten by three credited screenwriters. The story is of two convicts who escape, steal a train that to their great misfortune starts barreling uncontrollably down the tracks, and the efforts of railway officials and the prisoners’ warden to bring them back. Jon Voight plays Oscar “Many” Manheim, a prisoner so violent and notorious his almost equally monstrous warden tried to have the door to his cell welded shut. Voight escapes with a young prisoner Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) who hero worships him. Once they are on the train they find one of the engineers Sara, a brunette Rebecca De Mornay, stayed behind and is now the unwelcome third member of their party.

Thrillers tighten the screws the more focused the stakes and locations are and Runaway Train excels at that. There are cutaways to the Warden and people at the railway’s headquarters trying to figure out what to do but the real tension is in on the train with the core trio figuring out the depths of their predicament. The two men having to weigh certain recapture over a gruesome death in a crash, but where they would die free men. The film would fall apart if the performances could not convey these conflicting personalities with precision and the actors deliver.

Voight is fearless.Grotesque, almost animalistic in his line readings and gestures. Always hulking over other characters and speaking like he only recently learned how. Roberts is terrific as his accomplice. A Georgia cracker whose swagger quickly melts into fear. His initial aggressiveness towards De Mornay ending with him holding her like an older brother, assuring her that somehow they’ll make it out of this alive. De Mornay as Sara is a reminder of how much eighties movies missed out on by seeing her only as a blonde bombshell. She is brave and resourceful and I miss the performances we didn’t get to see in this vein. John P. Warren as Warden Ranken comes off as a bit over the top. But one of the awful lessons of 2017 is what felt like unrealistic fictional villainy pales to actual barbarity of elected law enforcement officials and their enablers.

Shot by Alan Hume, the images of the stark black train roaring against the wall of white falling snow linger in the mind. It is a monster roaring toward destruction.The attempts of the various parties to stop it being dwarfed by nature or industrialization. In the end only a monster can defeat it. Voight sacrifices himself and doesn’t sacrifice his nature. He destroys his longtime enemy and stands on top of the train car triumphant as it charges towards its end. Does he redeem a lifetime of bad deeds in that action? Does it matter? Maybe there was a moment of redemption when he uncouples the engine from the car where Roberts and De Mornay are. And it’s in that sliver of grace that we live our lives in. Hoping that we can do the right thing when the time comes.

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Jessica Ritchey is a freelance writer based in Maryland.

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