October, 2008, Thriller

Directed by:Brad Anderson

Starring:Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega, with Thomas Kretschmann, and and Ben Kingsley

Train buffs have long drooled over the week-long rail trek from Vladivostok to Moscow which begins in the port city at the western edge of the Pacific Ocean and crosses the vastness of Siberia before entering Russia itself. Add a murder mystery to that trip featuring a Spanish gigolo, a naïve hardware store owner from Iowa and a Russian detective whose joviality masks darker designs and you have all the makings of an interesting two hours in the dark. Writer/director Brad Anderson, a 40-something creative journeyman with  extensive experience in television dramas, mixes these elements with  stunning location photography, a host of weather-beaten faces and a very nasty torture scene to produce a 111-minute movie that gets an A for effort, but sadly, no more than a C+ for execution. Despite a great deal of huffing and puffing, Hitchcock it ain’t…but not for lack of trying.

Transsiberian begins promisingly enough; Russian police detective Grinko, (a nearly unrecognizable Ben Kingsley) investigates a grisly murder scene in the bowels of a rusty freighter docked in Vladivostok and concludes that the crime is the result of a lethal drug heist. The scene then moves to Beijing’s barn-like rail station where Woody Harrelson, (donning the wide-eyed innocent persona he perfected on the T.V. series Cheers) plays Roy, a jovial small-town businessman from the Midwest who’s returning with his dark eyed, (and dark soul-ed) wife Jessie, (Emily Mortimer) from a church-sponsored trip to China. When their portion of the Trans-Siberian railway enters Russia, the train takes on cars dispatched from Vladivostok to begin the long procession over the tundra. The homeward-bound Americans find themselves sharing a compartment with Carlos and Abby, a pair of shabbily dressed backpackers with no fixed destination. They also encounter Grinko, who complains about traveling to Moscow for a police conference. When Carlos confides that he’s an expert at slipping things past custom officials, the secretive Abby confesses a dream of returning to Vancouver and repurchasing a lake-side family home sold years before by her grandfather. The couple appear mysteriously exotic to Jessie who finds Carlos’ growing attentiveness sexually exciting but vaguely threatening.

But it soon develops that Grinko is actually on board to track the man he believes responsible for the murder he’s investigating. When Roy and Jessie become separated at an isolated train stop in the middle of nowhere, Transsiberian’s focus shifts to a convoluted tale of attempted rape, death by bludgeoning, official corruption and Jessie’s increasingly frantic efforts to free herself from the consequences of a rash decision involving Carlos.

If the plot staggers under an excess of improbabilities, the director manages to move his cast through all the busyness with enough attention to interesting locale and snippets of Russian life to maintain a semblance of credibility; there are loads of interesting peasant faces to examine and the cloistered life on board this long journey, with its surly railroad attendants, malfunctioning toilets and vodka-swilling passengers provides a genuinely interesting backdrop to the increasingly convoluted actions of these mis-matched couples and the beguiling detective lingering in the background. 

Unfortunately, too much of the storyline depends upon the conflicted Jessie - - and Ms. Mortimer doesn’t possess sufficient skill to sustain interest in her character. Jessie’s disaffection with her lot in life may make sense to the screenwriters, but not to an audience anxious to discover why Grinko persists in his jocular interrogations or why Amy seems both attracted to Carlos and frightened by his interest in contraband. In compelling thrillers like North by Northwest, less is more; Eva Marie Saint’s seductive flirtation with Cary Grant on their train trip from New York to Chicago obviously points to a darker purpose, but Hitchcock doesn’t elaborate on her intentions and thus heightens that film’s suspense. Those responsible for Transsiberian’s intermittent excitement would have been better served by spending less time delineating Jessie’s emotional turmoil and more on the increasingly sinister events which threaten to envelop her.

Cinematographer Xavi Gimenez, (who provided an interesting visual depiction of paranoia in Anderson’s 2004 film The Machinist) knows how to work in large scale; he employs Transsiberian’s Lithuanian locations to excellent effect and the ancient locomotives and passenger cars offer a glimpse into a form of travel with which most Americans under the age of 60 have no personal experience. If the process of arriving at the film’s final scene remains too obtuse to sustain the journey through the movie’s storyline, at least it slyly suggests that Amy may get her chance to repurchase that lakeside cottage after all…

The verdict? Interesting premise, some occasional surprises, but in the end, this one comes up short.  

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