TRANSSIBEREAN hearkens back to those glorious tales of intrigue and adventure that populated film screen in the 30s and 40s. In those days, it was trains that whisked people over vast distances and the close quarters with strangers of all sorts forced together in them was a situation rife with possibilities. Throw in a foreign locale, or locales, people who are not what they seem, and the claustrophobic tension practically writes itself. Brad Anderson has taken that genre and translated it to the 21st century. The locales are foreign, the nefarious doings are everywhere, but the interesting twist is that the strangers our all-American couple encounter while riding the rails from Beijing to Moscow are exactly what they seem. Perhaps it’s that smug sense of being untouchable that being American brings with it that accounts for the fact that they don’t bat an eye, at least not until it’s too late.
This train trip throws together a bright-eyed American couple returning from church work in China. He is Roy (Woody Harrelson), a corn-fed mid-westerner and owner of a hardware store, she is Jessie (Emily Mortimer), an amateur photographer with an interesting past. Instead of flying out of the country, Roy, a train buff, books them on the eponymous Transsiberian Railway for the adventure of it. That adventure comes in the form of two bunkmates. Carlos (a devastatingly charismatic Eduardo Noriega) is a charming Spaniard, and Abby (Kate Mara) a broody American waif, both of whom have been traveling for a long time and don’t seem to have a particular destination in mind. When Roy is accidentally left behind at one of the train’s stopovers, Carlos and Abby stay behind with Jessie to wait with her at the next station down the line. It’s a gallant gesture, but the peculiar way that Abby reacts to the discovery that Carlos is carrying a dozen or so matrushka dolls to sell in Amsterdam is enough to make Jessie a scooch suspicious. That Carlos also seems to be coming on to her even moreso.
Writer/director Brad Anderson has taken a subtle approach to building the tension in his film. Roy’s full-hearted innocence and genuine joy in greeting new people and situations creates a tantalizing juxtaposition to his wife’s willing but less enthusiastic reactions. Their bond is solid, but when the plot thickens, taking Jessie with it, it’s that very bond that is her greatest source of anxiety. Not disappointing Roy is more vital to her than deflecting the seemingly casual suspicions of the Russian Police inspector (Ben Kingsley) traveling with them, whose affable demeanor has a sinister cast for the flailing American woman, as does the lipstick-obsessed attendant with a glare that transcends the language barrier. Mortimer’s performance, a slick mix of steely and terrified, and the setting of an enclosed train hurtling her toward certain doom, create the perfect sense of edgy claustrophobia, with Harrelson’s sweet smile as heart-stopping as Kingsley’s coolly polished manners. That it is set in a country where civil rights are considered quaint, and where the overhead shots of the wide-open and frozen wastes remind the audience of the ample opportunity for disaster at any moment that could easily pass unnoticed by the outside world, only add to the suspense.
TRANSSIBERIAN is a solid suspense flick that has only one flaw. It gets a little too carried away with itself towards the end. A metaphor for the explosive emotions at work, perhaps, but at the at the cost of losing that fine subtlety mentioned before. The DVD release has subtitles and scene selection, but no other extras, which is a shame, because TRASSIBEREAN is, you’ll pardon the term, intriguing enough to warrant a peek behind the production.