Director : Brad Anderson
Screenplay : Brad Anderson & Will Conroy
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Woody Harrelson (Roy), Emily Mortimer (Jessie), Kate Mara (Abby), Eduardo Noriega (Carlos), Thomas Kretschmann (Kolzak), Ben Kingsley (Grinko), Etienne Chicot (Frenchman), Mac McDonald (Minister), Colin Stinton (Embassy official)
At one point, late in Brad Anderson’s taught thriller Transsiberian, Woody Harrelson, who plays a fundamentally good-hearted American missionary who has stumbled into some nasty business deep in the heart of the former Soviet Union, is having his non-existent civil rights stomped all over by corrupt Russian police officers, and he blurts out that most pathetic of distress cries: “But we’re Americans!” Not surprisingly, it doesn’t do him any good, just as it never does any characters in thrillers that feature woeful U.S. tourists way over their head in Third World nightmares, but you can’t really blame the guy for trying.
Harrelson’s Roy and his photographer wife, Jessie (Emily Mortimer), have been working with orphans in China and decide to take a grand adventure by riding the Transsiberian Express, which is an eight-day rail journey from Beijing to Moscow. Naturally, it involves riding through the most desolate parts of Russia, the fabled Siberian wilderness where many a politician, poet, or anyone else contrary to communism was sent packing back in the day. As he did in The Machinist (2004) and Session 9 (2001), cowriter/director Brad Anderson uses atmosphere to great effect, turning the landscape’s heavy historical baggage into an overwhelming presence of dread; even when the scenery is beautiful in a frosty, frozen kind of way, there is still an air of menace as the train slowly cuts its way through the wilds, reduced by extreme high-angle shots to a snake surrounded on all sides.
On the train Roy and Jessie meet Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), a confident and smooth-talking Spanish traveler, and his American girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara), whose heavy eyeliner and focused stare tell us all we need to know about her difficult past. Carlos is clearly trouble; his grin is too oily and his mannerisms too blatantly inviting, and we know from the get-go that Roy and Jessie should steer clear. But, Roy, who Harrelson plays as a dingy, grinning rube, is too much of a people person; he befriends everyone who comes within 20 feet of him, and Carlos is just too intriguing a fellow passenger to ignore. Jessie, on the other hand, befriends Abby because she recognizes in her a sister soul. It turns out that Jessie hasn’t always been a Christian do-gooder, but rather has a dark past from which Roy rescued her. But, as past tendencies tend to do, they are still seething just beneath the surface, waiting for someone (like Carlos) to prod them back out into the open.
The story takes several sharp turns, including Roy mysteriously going missing and Ben Kingsley’s stern-faced Russian narcotics agent Grinko (who we saw investigating a drug-related murder in the film’s open scene) appearing on the train and taking a particular interest in the traveling Americans. There is also an unexpected development that takes place near a crumbling church out in the woods that is both the film’s most genuinely tense setpiece and also its most forced, as it adds a sudden layer of moral grayness that turns the premise inside out, but also requires Jessie to act in ways that aren’t quite believable (the psychological background is given its due setup, but somehow it just doesn’t feel right).
Transsiberian has most of the right ingredients, and when they work it is has a crackling vibrancy that draws you close to the edge of your seat as characters dig themselves in deeper and deeper. The setting on the train, as Hitchcock and others well knew, creates its own claustrophobic pressure because it keeps everyone close together, eliminating easy escape, yet confounding characters when someone can’t be quickly located. Once tensions develop between characters, it just keeps building because there’s no way to get away. Even though Anderson and his cowriter Will Conroy take a bit too long in the build-up, drawing out the film’s opening half to the breaking point, it effectively keeps us in the dark as to where the story is eventually heading, allowing the film to deliver enough suspense to produce some serious hang-wringing.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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