2008, R, 111 min. Directed by Brad Anderson. Starring Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega, Thomas Kretschmann.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 29, 2008
Oh, those strangers on a train; they get you every time. Transsiberian falls into that lovely category of train-set suspense movies that hurtle forward with steely resolve even as characters get sucked up and sometimes mangled by the machinery. Yet Transsiberian is more than a rote thriller; it’s also a sharp character study … actually, several studies in which the information about each character is slowly revealed and every scrap of knowledge further informs our understanding of the plot and the connections among the characters. The cramped quarters and corridors of the railroad cars on the Trans-Siberian line from Beijing to Moscow enhance the pressurized effect of Anderson’s movie, while the director also creates an intense sense of disorientation as his Americans abroad become increasingly isolated and disoriented amid the unwelcoming Siberian climate and hospitality. Roy (Harrelson) and Jessie (Mortimer) are a young couple taking the long way home from Beijing after completing some charity work in China for Roy’s church. Roy, we learn, is a train fanatic who is fascinated by every nut and bolt on the train, a good soul who may just be a little too trusting of his fellow man. Jessie is more aloof, a former wild child who went clean and sober after meeting Roy, yet still clearly struggles against the pull of her dark side. Their odd-couple relationship is inherently intriguing, and its dynamics play out against the personalities of their cabinmates, Carlos (Noriega) and Abby (Mara), whom Roy invites to bunk with them. Roy fails to get back on the train after one of its stops, and Jessie, Abby, and Carlos debark at the next stop, hoping that he'll reappear with the next train. A few odd things transpire in that Russian outpost, and when Roy does re-emerge, he and Jessie hop on the next train accompanied by a new cabinmate whom Roy has found. Grinko (Kingsley, trying out a new ethnic accent) is a Russian narcotics agent, and before long, the whole experience escalates into a life-and-death struggle for all concerned. Transsiberian is a well-told suspense story in which Anderson (The Machinist, Next Stop Wonderland) allows us a bit more omniscience than his characters possess, yet never shows his entire hand so that viewers undergo a mounting sense of dread without ever knowing precisely what is going to occur. With top-notch performances (especially that of Mortimer) and the gray of the Siberian wilderness providing an apt backdrop for the movie's gray zones of morality, Transsiberian is on a great track.