‘Transsiberian’ Serves Up Old School Suspense

[28 August 2008]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

The little lie begins the deceit. Soon, the lack of truth clouds everything - from love to legality. Within days, loyalties which once seemed firm are tested, while newfound friendships provide the catalyst for even more distrust. All the while, the deception cuts as deeply as the Siberian cold, the temperature unable to freeze out the feeling of isolation or the need to be insincere. Soon, there is nothing left but a mountain of fabrication, its uneasy equilibrium waiting for one loose element to cause it all to come crashing down. That uncertain fragment is Jessie, the wife of rightly religious hardware store owner Roy. While her troubled past is now a faint memory, what she will do presently along the couple’s Transsiberian train trip will call into question everything she ever was - or wanted to be.

Returning to America via Moscow, train nut Roy and his photography loving wife Jessie have decided to take the Transsiberian express from Beijing, where they have just completed a successful church mission. Uncomfortable at first, they soon meet up with Spanish ‘teacher’ Carlos and his 20-something Seattle gal pal Abby. At first, our marrieds enjoy their fun loving friends’ company. But soon Carlos is making a play for Jessie, and while adverse to his advances, he does remind her of a more freewheeling time in her life. Soon separated, Jessie is left to her own devices. When a visit to a local church turns deadly, secrets are suddenly revealed. Turns out Carlos and Abby may be running drugs, and the Russian detective who now shares the compartment with Roy and Jessie may not be the straight shooter he pretends to be. Either way, it’s going to be a rough ride across some frozen, and rather frightening, tundra.

Transsiberian is the kind of movie you have to indulge in. To be sure, it needs more than half of its 111 minute running time to get all its little narrative dominoes in place. As you sit and watch director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9) meticulously putting each one out, the mind free associates on their significance. Initial conclusions are hard to come by, but once piled together they create the kind of solid set up that only needs a single plot point twist to take us down a rollercoaster ride filled with suspense. Oddly enough, Anderson succeeds, if only slightly. While we can’t really care about his characters (more on this in a moment), we do empathize with their fate. And when the guns come out and the torture begins, our tendency toward identifying with these people is heightened anew. This is not to say that Transsiberian is wall-to-wall dread. Once it gets going, however, it delivers enough electricity to keep us right near, if not completely on, the edge of our seats.

Our leads don’t help matters much. Woody Harrelson, who can usually be counted on for something special, is stuck playing the unwilling, unknowing accessory. He’s the kind of husband so trusting of his wife that when the police are waving a firearm in her face, he still thinks its all some kind of cross-culture confusion (“We’re American!” he shouts). The same can be said for Eduardo Noriega’s Carlos. He’s all crotch shots and amoral animal magnetism. From the moment he lays eyes on Jessie, we can sense the mental undressing - and humping. It’s not hard then to see him as evil. Rounding out the male leads is Sir Ben Kingsley. On the plus side, he’s not putting on the shtick as some fart blowing guru or oversexed New York shrink. But as Detective Grinko, a supposedly honest man in the unethical morass known as Russia, he’s about as obvious with his loyalties as an ‘80s Miami beat cop.

That just leaves our two female focal points to hold down the filmic fort, and luckily, they both do. Again, we aren’t on Jessie or Abby’s side, but we don’t mind the way Emily Mortimer and Kate Mara (respectively) bring them to life. Of the two, our married mark is more troublesome. Jessie makes some very stupid mistakes and choices here, trusting individuals who never give her a real reason for such a belief while approaching all problems like something she will consider…eventually. When Roy turns up missing toward the movie’s midpoint, we instantly suspect foul play. But even in the midst of such a personal dilemma, our heroine finds time to drift out into the countryside with Carlos. If motivations were currency, Mortimer would be paying us in Confederate dollars…or wooden nickels.

Mara is better in that Anderson doesn’t give her too much to do. In a clear case of a little going a long way, Abby makes an impact for what she isn’t as much as for what she turns out to be. When Jessie argues that she’s a good girl, we really don’t see it. But over time, Mara makes us consider the possibility - which is much more than can be said for anyone else in the cast. Thanks to the way Anderson prepares us for the payoff, and the clever little clips that he and co-writer Will Conroy toss in, we don’t mind that the finale feels lifted from dozens of other thrillers. Like Brian DePalma or John Carpenter, Anderson is aping Hitchcock in the best possible way - that is, acknowledging the master while making his noted conceits all his own.

This is what helps Transsiberian thrive. As we watch each carefully planned portion announce itself and then fall back into place, as the twists and turns take us in directions we never once considered, as the characters connive and try to betray their way out of peril, we’re prepared to be held in the tight grip of clockwork caper. That Anderson almost delivers on such a promise is unusual enough. That he can do it in a cinematic era when excess drives most thrills and chills is the film’s most amazing feat. While an appreciation for old school shivers is not required to enjoy what Transsiberian is offering, such an appreciative attitude won’t hurt. This movie’s mechanics are as creaky and conventional as the steam-driven locomotives that Roy loves so dearly. That they still function is a tribute to the power of the motion picture - and a story structured on that most human of habits…the lie.

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