Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura
Released in 2008
In their first encounter, Leon photographs Mahogany ascending from a subway station late at night and, sensing something unsettling about his subject, follows the man home. However, in a threatening, wordless confrontation with Mahogany, who senses Leon tailing him, he is duly warned away. Believing that he has found some secret aspect of the city’s ecology, Leon then embarks on a misguided and obsessive pursuit of Mahogany, following him to his place of work, a meat packing plant, and down to the subway many times, still ostensibly in search of the picture that will launch his career. As the film progresses we see how Leon’s forays into the deepest, darkest parts of the city begin to affect his life in increasingly strange ways: his dreams become more violent, taking on a prophetic quality; he becomes sexually aggressive towards his girlfriend, Maya (Leslie Bibb); and he develops an appetite for meat, much to the confusion of his friend Jurgis (Roger Bart,) who had previously mocked him for asking the owner of the cafe to cook tofu on his griddle. In these ways, we see the violent secrets of the city slowly begin to change intrinsic aspects of Leon’s personality.
From some of the earliest scenes in the film the viewer knows that Mahogany is brutally killing travellers on the city’s subway system and thus Leon’s instinct to follow him in order to solve a huge number of missing person’s cases is accurate. The scenes depicting these murders are always visceral and demanding; in one, the viewer must endure seeing Mahogany’s methodical treatment of his victim’s bodies in graphic detail. These scenes are stunningly shot under the blazing fluorescent lights of the almost sterile-looking carriages. The gleaming chrome of their interiors serves to make the pools of blood spilled on the floor after each murder unsettlingly reminiscent of abattoirs.
With this knowledge, it is with great trepidation that the viewer finally sees Leon, still in pursuit of Mahogany, board the last train one night at 2:06am. It is on this journey that Leon witnesses some of the murders for himself, watching Mahogany prepare his victims for an unknown purpose with militaristic precision. The butcher strips the corpses of clothing, removes teeth, nails and eyeballs, then shaves their heads before hanging them upside down, like carcasses from the meat-packing plant he works at.
It is only once Maya and Jurgis are forced to become involved in this shadowy life of the city by Leon’s increasingly strange behaviour that the full scope of the conspiracy Mahogany is just a small part of begins to unfold. Realizing that his loved ones have followed his lead by travelling on the fateful last journey of the subway, the danger they face forces a dramatic and violent final confrontation between Leon and Mahogany, which leads to the sublime twist in the last scenes of the film, as surprising as it is, perhaps, utterly inevitable.
The emotional depth seen in the understated performances of leads Cooper and Jones only serves to pull the viewer deeper into the action, making them at once afraid to watch their interconnected fates unfurl, but also too concerned to look away. Cooper’s Leon starts off as a sensitive, fairly naive, but obviously passionate man, following his dream of capturing what he sees when he looks at the city around him. Our belief in Leon, and in his blossoming relationship with his girlfriend Maya, makes the strange transformation that he starts to undergo all the more disturbing to watch. Jones’s silent portrayal of Mahogany is masterful; the character’s threat is conveyed by facial expression and posture alone. Yet, as with all Barker’s antagonists, there is something intriguing about Mahogany; he is not just a butcher. In private he is a perfectionist, every move of his morning routine regimented and exact: every detail, from the way his suit hangs to the way he packs his bag, seems of great importance to him. His compulsions are, perhaps, the actions of a weary man who is ultimately tired of repeating the same routine over and over again, but has lost all knowledge of who he used to be and, thus, how his life could ever be different.
The Midnight Meat Train has been thoroughly berated by many critics, often seemingly because of the level of violence on display here. Admittedly, it would take something rather extreme to force me to decry a film based on its use of gore, but I have to question whether The Midnight Meat Train is really any more violent than the slew of so-called “torture porn” films that were flooding the cinemas around the same time of its release. It certainly does not reach the heights of, for example, Pascal Laugier’s excellent Martyrs (2008), in terms of horrific portrayals of suffering. Rather, what I think is truly disturbing here is not the violence in and of itself, but the reason for the violence; in The Midnight Meat Train, Mahogany’s murders are brutal, methodical, and, as anyone who is aware of the ultimate twist will attest, absolutely necessary. I would argue that it is not the violence, but the sheer pace at which this film hurls itself along a trajectory which leads its main character to confront the darkest parts of himself, that is truly terrifying. The viewer is granted foreknowledge with which to comprehend what is actually happening, which makes the characters’ attempts to fight against the conspiracy seem utterly futile. They have access to Leon’s private uncertainties and increasingly erratic behaviour (even some of his dreams), also Mahogany’s remorseless murders as well as his private weariness, and so know from the moment that Leon begins his dogged pursuit of Mahogany that he is entering a dangerous downward spiral.
The Midnight Meat Train is an intriguing and excellently constructed horror film which packs a surprisingly powerful emotional punch. It is also a fantastic rendering of Barker’s short story, which I always felt could do with a little fleshing out, needing space for its mythology to breathe; Kitamura certainly delivers. The film is proof positive that it is possible to make an intelligent film within the slasher tradition that moves beyond the limitations imposed by studios’ low-expectations for their audiences whilst retaining the thrills that one would expect from the subgenre at its very best.