We find the young American couple, Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) at a banquet celebrating the work of a religious group in China. Roy was one of the Americans participating and Jessie took photos of the children whose lives have benefited from the group's efforts. Rather than fly home, the couple opts for an adventure. They decide to take the long way home on the legendary Trans-Siberian Express train from Beijing to Moscow. Their first encounter with a passenger on the train leads to a warning about not messing with the Russian police. That sets the stage for what's to come.
Edouardo Noriega in Transsiberian (First Look International)
The couple is soon joined in their cramped sleeping quarters by another couple. The gregarious Roy quickly warms up to Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara), and embraces them as fellow travelers far from home. But Jessie is slower to warm to them although she seems reluctantly attracted to the sexy Carlos. As the trip progresses, we begin to suspect Carlos and Abby of smuggling drugs. We also discover that Jessie has had a somewhat wild past. When Roy accidentally gets left behind at a stopover, Jessie ends up spending the night at a hotel with Carlos and Jessie, and that's when things start to spiral out of control. Throw into the mix a Russian detective (Sir Ben Kingsley) whose allegiances are difficult to ascertain and you have the makings for a tense thriller.
Brad Anderson, the film's co-writer and director, made a splash about ten years ago when he was honored by Variety as one of the Ten Leading New Independent Directors to Watch in 1997. Since then he has delivered the vastly different Next Stop Wonderland (with Hope Davis and Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and The Machinist (with an emaciated Christian Bale). With Transsiberian , Anderson crafts half an excellent film. The first half of the film builds the dynamics of the two couples well. First, Anderson sets up Roy's naivet e and his sense that as Americans traveling abroad they are entitled to a kind of privileged status. In contrast to his innocence and outgoing nature is his wife's reticence. Jessie, who reveals that she used to drink hard and sleep around, is more wary of the world and less trustful. Then you have the charming but conniving Carlos who seems quite at ease using people, and Abby who seems like a decent kid gone wrong. The interaction of these characters pulls us in and leads us to build a certain set of expectations based on the conventions of the thriller genre. But what's refreshing is how these expectations are cleverly denied - at least initially.
Woody Harrelson in Transsiberian (First Look International)
The plot twists and turns actually hinge less on the drug smuggling that Carlos engages in and more on the personal dynamics of these four people. I don't want to spoil the film - and hopefully I haven't revealed too much - but let me just add that complications arise and deceits are maintained for very intimate reasons. Jessie finds telling the truth is difficult not so much out of a desire for self-preservation but because of what the truth might do to Roy and her marriage.
This initial emphasis on character makes Transsiberian more complex and compelling than your standard by-the-book thriller. But the film falters badly in the final stages as it tries desperately to tie everything up in a pretty little package. There is a twisted sort of morality and justice that the film insists on at the final fade out, and that tidy conclusion leaves you with a bad aftertaste. It's too bad because for a while Transsiberian chugs along with steady assurance. Tell No One , the French thriller I mentioned earlier, faltered at the end as well but it didn't stumble as badly and its contrived resolution at least played to the heart and soul of its story.
Anchoring the film with a quietly intense performance is Emily Mortimer. Her Jessie doesn't reveal much at the beginning. She's reserved and you initially think the cause is shyness. But as the film progresses that reticence seems to spring more from a wariness about people. You sense that Jessie is suspicious of others because she knows first hand that someone can appear quite different from who they really are. Mortimer drives the film and provides something of a twist to the Hictchcockian notion of the wrong or wronged man thriller. Noriega is a perfect match for her as an actor. His easy charm playing effectively off of her chilly tense surface.
Anderson works well within the cramped quarters of the train. The restricted space forces these strangers in close proximity to each other and gives a charge to the interaction of the characters. But Anderson doesn't succeed as well in conveying the local atmosphere and the extreme cold of the region. This summer we've actually had two films that have captured icy conditions well - Frozen River and The X-Files: I Want to Believe . Both of those films could make you shiver with cold even on the hottest summer day. You could also feel the cold in the visual texture of those films. But in Transsiberian , Anderson gives us some nice snowy scenes but we never really feel the cold and we need to. A numbing sense of cold would have helped us understand what drives characters like the Russian cop because it would suggest some of what he's trying to escape from.
Transsiberian (rated R some violence, including torture, and language) is ultimately frustrating because it builds so well for more than half its running time. Maybe if you walk out 15-20 minutes before the end and imagine something clever happens at the climax, you'll feel more satisfied. Mortimer and Noriega, however, do provide considerable compensation. So I would still recommend Transsiberian and maybe if you go in with lowered expectations about the ending, you'll feel less disappointed.
Companion viewing: Tell No One, Murder on the Orient Express, Redbelt, Frozen River, Gorky Park