Triangulating the Rust Belt: Notes on Tony Scott's "Unstoppable"

Found on my cine-hard drive, notes for an review of Tony Scott's great 2010 thriller, _Unstoppable_.
Daniel Kasman

Found on my cine-hard drive, notes for a review of Tony Scott's great 2010 thriller, Unstoppable, gladly abandoned in favor of a piece by Christoph Huber. I resurrect them in honor of half-watching half of a pan and scanned version of Scott's film from the seat on an airplane behind someone who was watching the full thing.  If that person is reading this, perhaps this will be of some interest.


  • A lovely, arcing tour through some of America's Northeast small towns and countrysides.
  • The ridiculous accident that sets off the plot, that of a moving train left unmanned, is explained in thorough technical and human detail, rendering it both highly plausible and documentarian.
  • Another Tony Scott film triangulating action in a crisis state.  Here we see the two men on the "unstoppable" train, the people in the various crisis centers (mainly the one courageously run by a beautiful performance from Rosario Dawson), and finally the very strange third-narrator, the media.  (The last third of the film is narrated nearly as if it were a sporting event being covered by the media.)  Add to this, of course, the myriad of micro-points of view along the way, bystanders, rescuees (that second-long POV of the army vet being lowered onto the train!)...Scott's cinema in its current iteration is always one of perception and points of view.  All collide, overlap, coalesce and part; one of the challenges both inside the movies (for their heroes) and out (for us) is making a coherent sense of all these points of view.
  • The metallic, green-blue color palette, sometimes a default these days in blockbuster cinema, is fully legitimized by, if not sprung from, the Rust Belt rail-setting of the action.
  • Great working-class setting and characters, unglamorous and fairly normalized, Denzel Washington eloquent in the roteness of the role, its unshowy regularness (not to mention motionlessness, most of his acting is done sitting in the conductor's seat).  Chris Pine is fine too, fiery and angry, with a great back story as a real bad guy, no easy answers here, everyone seems fallible, even the best workers and the best humans.
  • Fairly big misstep with Kevin Dunn's evil corporate presence, whose broadness rubs uncomfortably with down to earth quality of the rail men and women, though perhaps that's one point.  Still, his visual perspective—stuck in a board room unrolling a paper map of the rail-lines, using speaker phone and no "screen" but rather a panoramic window view of a major town (is it supposed to be the victimized "Stanton"?)—helps assuage the dramatic problems.
  • First time I've heard terms like "union" and "paygrade" in an American movie in a while, let alone an action film.
  • A surprising de-emphasis on the actual physical danger of the action taken by Pine and Washington; the director instead focuses on the image-frenzy of their stunts, be it the amazing sequence where a grain car bursts a leak spewing tons of tiny particles at Pine and obliterating the image's clarity for Pine, Washington, and the viewer for several unbelievably gorgeous, grain-filled (pun intended) minutes, or when Washington gets on top of the cars and we sense not the risk he's taking but the trees flashing by in the foreground between the camera and the man, the blur, all the blur.
  • Likewise, the miniature character piece going on between Pine and Washingon in the conductor's cab, stuck in a tiny space made utterly cramped by the film's long, flat lensing, crushing the two in a little metal-transparent capsule, the world racing by outside if not reflected in the glass between the camera and the actors, everyone's stuck behind things, or at least our vision of them always makes them stuck, our vision is impaired, and contributes hugely to the sense that they are impaired, expressionistically, a mise-en-scène about limitation and the speed the world and how perception movies within that limitation.

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