Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Starring Sir Ben Kingsley, Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega
Directed by Brad Anderson
Brad Anderson has become known, thanks to his last three genre entries (Session 9, The Machinist and the MoH episode “Sounds Like”) as a very bleak director. The simple fact that Transsiberian is set against the backdrop of the Russian wastelands lends it a certain bleakness, anyway, though in reality it’s his least oppressive film in years.
Harrelson and Mortimer star as Roy and Jessie, a couple on their way from a missionary job in Beijing (he’s a super Christian, she’s just trying to be good) who decide to take the infamous Trans-Siberian railway back to Moscow before heading home. Along the way they meet Carlos (Noriega) and Abby (Mara), who are young, seemingly in love, and acting more than a little sketchy.
After a strange series of events at one of the trains many stops, Roy is nowhere to be found when the train takes off again, so the remaining trio choose to wait it out in the next town for him, Jessie because she cares, Carlos and Abby because they hear that the Russian police are randomly checking passengers for drug smuggling. Another strange series of events finds Jessie reunited with Roy and setting off on their own, an altercation between Jessie and Carlos ending … let’s just say badly.
Their new traveling mate is Detective Grinko (Kingsley, finally reminding us again why he’s a considered great actor) who takes an interest in how uncomfortable Jessie seems, especially after she finds out what Carlos left behind in her bag. From there things get even more complicated as double crosses go down left and right, Jessie makes one horrible decision after another, and a body count begins to build.
If it seems like that’s a exceptionally vague plot outline, it’s intentional; part of the enjoyment of Transsiberian is finding out where Anderson is going next with his tale. He still has a masterful skill of building suspense, keeping things seemingly normal just long enough for you to wonder if your initial mistrusts of some of the characters are justified before he really lays it out.
One of the issues with the film lies in that building of tension, however; it’s just a little too long for my tastes, with too much time going by in which little seemingly happens. The sexual tension between Jessie and Carlos is an added distraction that, while necessary to build the characters and their motivation, seemed too forced to me. I think a good 10 minutes could’ve been trimmed to tighten things up, but one of the cool things about Anderson is that he knows just what’s going to make the audience start to suspect things might be too normal, so I’m sure the length was probably intentional.
Across the board are good performances save Harrelson, who’s just too much corn-fed country boy in a strange land for my tastes. He’s got enough depth for you to understand where he’s coming from, but doesn’t really show any growth until the very end of the film. Of course you have to take into account that he’s kept in the dark about what’s really going on for most of the run time.
All in all Transsiberian is probably Anderson’s most accessible film to date (not counting his early-career Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents), with a plot that, while at times ventures into the “Americans stuck in a foreign country having bad stuff happen to them” territory, manages to keep it fresh enough (since most of the bad stuff is one of the American’s faults) and twisting along nicely to keep the viewer interested.
3 1/2 out of 5
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