A tight, claustrophic thriller that puts a premium on character development, Last Passenger is one of the best surprises I’ve had at the movies in a long while. Indie thrillers, working with leaner budgets and lesser known stars, are often dead on arrival, thanks to scripts too weak to compensate for the lack of top-tier effects work. Luckily, writer-director Omid Nooshin and co-writer Andrew Love are smart enough to maintain a level of frightening plausibility in their film even as they ratchet the suspense up to agonizing levels. Couple their efforts with remarkably strong performances, and you’ve got one of the year’s best thrillers so far.
Dougray Scott plays Lewis Shaler, a doctor heading home with his young son Max (Joshua Kaynama) on a late night train from London. At first, nothing on the train seems out of the ordinary. Lewis and fellow passenger Sarah Barwell (Kara Tointon) connect as they roll their eyes at drunk college students in the back and collaboratively look out for Max. A gruff young man (Iddo Goldberg) broods in his seat, hiding stress at his inability to carve out a career for himself, while an uppity businessman (David Schofield) snidely comments on the other passengers from his private booth. As the train rolls on, however, Lewis begins to realize that their mysterious driver has no intention of letting them disembark. As they barrel on towards death, via an abrupt end to the tracks, Lewis leads his fellow passengers in a desperate attempt to regain control of the train.
Sure, it’s not the most original set-up for a thriller, but Nooshin and Love really just use it as a jumping-off point. Last Passenger earns its thrills more in how it analyzes the characters’ responses to their dire situation. As panic, anger and fear set in, the relationships between the characters become the film’s main focus, and it’s all the more suspenseful and realistic for that choice. Nooshin and Love clearly tried to make both dialogue and plot as organic as possible; to their credit, there are no obnoxiously dumb or stereotyped characters on board, and interactions between characters are sharply written. Nooshin’s dark, gritty color palette further strengthens Last Passenger‘s sense of realism.
Last Passenger would never have succeeded without a strong cast, and the film really lucked out in that department. Scott isn’t known for his heroic roles, but he plays Lewis with admirable restraint and depth of feeling. An overworked doctor struggling to raise a son alone in the wake of his wife’s death, Lewis is already drained as his ordeal begins, and Scott communicates his perpetual exhaustion in just a few minutes. That said, his transition to action hero is also surprisingly believable. Scott skillfully commands his features to balance Lewis’s willpower and fatigue, demonstrating that he definitely has the right stuff to be a leading man.
Tointon, famed for her role on British soap EastEnders, also delivers a solid performance, turning her requisite love interest into a refreshingly lifelike character. It’s clear to see her growing affection for Lewis, but the actress neatly sidesteps the gooey romantic pining typically found in thriller fare like this. In smaller roles, Goldberg and Schofield play their parts extremely well, though Kaynama occasionally grated on my nerves (more a fault of the character than the actor, seeing as he’s playing a highly vocal child).
Also of note is who isn’t a character: the mysterious man bent on derailing the train and sending both himself and his fellow passengers to an early grave. Nooshin and Love opt to keep him entirely hidden from the audience, allowing the character to become more of a concept than a tangible threat. As Lewis and the other passengers battle to survive, they’re fighting the train more than the person in control of it. Some dialogue hints at possible explanations for the man’s actions, but he’s consistently shrouded in mystery. Perhaps it’s better that way. Nooshin and Love pit their characters against someone truly evil, and never giving that antagonist a face allows the focus to remain squarely on the characters’ reactions to the villain, not on the character himself.
As the tension grows and the train bears down on its destructive final destination, Last Passenger occasionally betrays its budget, taking on action sequences that don’t look quite real enough to justify their inclusion. In particular, the film’s explosive finale doesn’t pack as much of a punch as it should. For the vast majority of its snappy 97-minute runtime, however, Last Passenger is a genuine nail-biter in the spirit of that venerable master of suspense himself – Alfred Hitchcock. Nooshin and Love prove that, with a strong cast and smart script, low budget and high tension don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Intelligent and strongly acted, Last Passenger is a white-knuckle thrill ride that, despite its small budget, is capable of going toe-to-toe with the best thrillers coming out of Hollywood today.