“Ours is not a gray world,” a minister (Mac McDonald) advises his listeners. “Under the bright light of truth, it’s a world of clear contrasts: black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. There is always a choice.” As he speaks, at the beginning of Transsiberian, the minister’s assertion is accompanied by poignant piano and a roving camera, framing not only the faces of his rapt listeners but also photos of Chinese children, poignant and troubled. As the group reflects on a two-week effort to help the children, the minister helps them to feel good about themselves. “With faith,” he says solemnly, “The choice is easy.”
The church group is about to leave Beijing, members splitting off as they head home to the States. Roy (Woody Harrelson) and his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer), who took the children’s photos, are taking the Transsiberian train to Moscow. He’s a train buff (and a hardware store owner) and hopes to check out old stations and engines en route, and she’s distracting herself with her camera, shooting leathery faces and craggy buildings, trying to believe as fervently as Roy in “the simple power of compassion.”
Such faith will be tested, you intuit, as soon as Roy shows up in their cabin with Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and his younger girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara). Their entrance is presaged by a sign of tension between Roy and Jessie, whose almost- sex, initiated by the crackly-corny-cute “Love Will Keep Us Together” carries over from the cabin next door, is cut short by her concern that over birth control. Roy goes for a drink, reappearing a few hours later with his new friends. The endless hours on the train, with pauses at stations, break into vignettes that figure and refigure relations among the individuals: Jessie clicks a photo of kohl-eyed Abby looking pensive, Carlos advises the less experienced travelers on the suspicions aroused by their brand-new passports. Jessie’s embarrassed one night to see Carlos and Abby having sex (especially when he looks back at her from their top bunk). Roy shares his enthusiasm about old trains, Abby suggests she’s had an unhappy childhood (“Never really had much of a home to miss”) and admires that Jessie knows Tennessee Williams (“I am afraid if I lose my demons, my angels will desert me too,” turned here into “Kill off my demons, and my angels might die too”).
Such exchanges are framed by glimpses of local cultures and repeated problems of translation. During a night of drinking in the dining car, gnarly men begin to show off their scars and explain their circumstances. Though the gulag is gone, they say, memories linger. “There is no good,” says one especially burdened-looking fellow, “until there’s no Siberia.”
It’s a warning the Americans (and Carlos the Spaniard) can’t or won’t understand (Roy is especially encumbered by the Eternal Optimist label, when Jessie recalls his telling her, “No matter what your dream in life, no matter what your goal, keep your eye on the donut and not on the hole”). The tourists’ seeming oblivion, however, is consistently situated alongside stunning visual references to the harsh landscape as emblem of the loss and fear within. In this, Transsiberian is yet another refraction of Brad Anderson’s interest in connections between external and internal states, the ways that composition can reveal character. As in Session 9 and The Machinist, both brilliant evocations of psychic hauntings, the past here sneaks up on Jessie. At first, she sees another version of herself in Abby, rootless, unhappy, searching for a self in familiar forms of rebellion—sex and drugs. After confessing that she met Roy when she drunkenly slammed her car into his, Jessie insists she’s grateful for his devotion to her, even as it’s clear she’s also intrigued by Carlos’ come-ons.
Immersed in grays even amid the stark white snow-scape, Jessie contradicts the minister’s claim for easy choices. At the same time, she doesn’t always see what’s at stake, an idea that only gradually emerges, as Transsiberian takes up and then challenges or reframes her perspective. This increasingly complex narrative structure has a clever metaphorical correlative in the Russian nesting dolls Carlos carries with him. He shows them to Jessie as a seductive ploy, but they also raise questions about his trustworthiness (in Jessie’s eyes, Abby seems unhappy that he has them, or that he’s shown them to Jessie).
Given that the film opens with the investigation of a drug dealer’s death in Vladivostok, the dolls also suggest their familiar purpose in such situations, as a means of smuggling drugs. When the narcotics inspector at that scene, Grinko (Ben Kingsley), reappears on the train, yet another new friend discovered by Roy, the layers of the plot begin to resemble those nesting dolls. Even this device is torqued, however, when the film reveals that Jessie’s point of view is itself layered inside multiple other perspectives, indicated as she begins to doubt herself.
As Jessie is increasingly unable to anticipate and then follow even her own motives, Transsiberian becomes both more abstract and more visceral. This doubled effect takes several turns, as when Jessie and Roy are briefly separated (he’s missing when the train leaves Irkutsk) or when she’s lost in the snowy woods during a touristy afternoon outing with Carlos, near Ilinskaya. Her efforts to keep track of events are thrown into a tailspin when Grinko begins to suspect her. “Your wife has problems with the truth,” he tells Roy, who intends to defend her but also worries that maybe she does. Questions give way to horrific violence, which raises more questions concerning “the bright light of truth.” As Jessie confronts her own choices at the moment of making them, the film makes an expansive, incommodious point, that the truth is not so easy to know, much less speak.