After simply reading the synopsis for writer-director Brad Anderson’s “Transsiberian,” a suspense-thriller taking place primarily on a Trans-Siberian train ride, Alfred Hitchcock might come to mind.
While the setting might be Hitchcockian and reminiscent of films like “North by Northwest” and “Strangers on a Train,” this is no Hitchcock film. There is none of the glamour of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint sitting in tableclothed dining cars. Instead, “Transsiberian” is an intriguing glimpse into the dregs of the former U.S.S.R. through the eyes of the seemingly innocent American couple, Jessie (the actually British Emily Mortimer) and Roy (Woody Harrelson).
Upon finishing charity work in Beijing for Roy’s church, the troubled pair decides that instead of flying directly home, they will take the Trans-Siberian railroad, a seven-day journey from Beijing to Moscow. On the early part of their journey they meet the mysterious Abby (Kate Mara) and Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) who seduce the couple with alcohol and a globe-traipsing life style. When Roy gets separated from the group and left at a station, the plot of drugs, subterfuge and suspicion is thrown into gear.
“But it will melt the ice inside of you,” Carlos says as he goads the sober Jessie to take some of the Russian vodka that appears throughout the film. The vodka couldn’t possibly melt the icy and hostile quality the film creates as it thrusts both the viewers and the principal characters into this uncomfortable world. The film is cold, yes, but not isolating, and also quite painfully beautiful. Many of the shots, all laden with the bleak grayness of the Siberian sky, seem almost taken out of a documentary on the decrepit nature of former Soviet states.
The characters, like the cinematography, are well developed, especially in the case of the Jessie and Abby. They are real women the viewer can recognize and identify with, people with problems thrown into extreme situations. On the other hand, Roy and Carlos are almost caricatures — the ignorant American and the sexy but devious Spaniard.
The film in many ways belongs to Emily Mortimer, who is vulnerable and yet scarily self-aware as the tormented Jessie. She pants nervously, like many thriller heroines do, but there is a deeper understanding within her fear. It also features a sturdy performance from Sir Ben Kingsley as the detective who further draws the couple into the web that is the Russian criminal system.
Too bad the movie fails in some of its twists and turns. The major turning point is based on one of Jessie’s actions that comes out of nowhere, and in the final scenes Roy’s revelations are also uncharacteristic. In addition, “Transsiberian” ends a little too happily. Roy and Jessie have worked out the marital issues they had at the beginning of the movie, the bad guys are dead and the semi-bad guys are almost all redeemed. For a movie that on the whole is quite nuanced, the ending feels a little too tidy.
It does follow one of Hitchcock’s mantras, though: Beware of strangers on trains.