Friday 31 December 2021

Movie Review: Transsiberian (2008)

A crime thriller, Transsiberian is full of good ideas percolating in unique locales, but is hampered by too many coincidences and some conveniently poor character judgments.

In eastern Russia, detective Grinko (Ben Kingsley) investigates a murder scene and determines criminals are muscling-in on the established drug trade routes. In the meantime, American married couple Roy and Jessie (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) finish a missionary assignment in Beijing and board the trans-Siberian train for a seven day trip to Moscow. Roy is wholesome and a fan of all things trains; Jessie suffered a wild upbringing, and is now a recovering alcoholic and amateur photographer. 

On the train Roy and Jessie meet another traveling couple, Carlos and Abby (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara). Carlos is charismatic and immediately shows interest in Jessie. Abby is a younger, darker version of Jessie, and appears to be with Carlos just for the thrill. Carlos repeatedly tries to isolate Jessie, and is carrying a mysterious collection of babushka dolls. At a train stop Jessie and Roy get separated; and at the next stop she finds herself alone with Carlos in the wilderness. The trip suddenly takes a very dangerous turn.

Featuring beautiful cinematography as the titular train snakes its way through the rugged snowscapes of remote Russia, Transsiberian draws strength from sparse and less familiar thriller terrain. Director Brad Anderson co-wrote the script with Will Conroy, and invests in a small group of five characters, the two couples and one detective engaging in far-fetched but nevertheless tension-filled games of attraction, repulsion, and manipulation.

The plot is driven by a drug-smuggling pretext, enhanced by the spurious comfort of superficial normalcy. The all-is-not-what-it-seems slow reveals are satisfying, as character backgrounds and motivations come to the fore and play a critical role in defining the unfolding trip dynamics. With deliberate pacing, the opening two thirds are particularly strong, a good amount of time deployed to define the characters and start the process of building tension on board the crowded, sometimes claustrophobic train. Frustration, temptation, and the whiff of criminality seep to the surface. As the danger torques, the premise of an innocent couple quietly getting embroiled in a dangerous situation threatens to draw Hitchcockian comparisons.

But the final act is less cerebral and more routine. Although the often unpredictable narrative is always enjoyable, it also relies heavily on some wild coincidences (Roy showing up with the detective in tow; a perfectly timed train crash), and unexplained logic gaps (exactly why did Roy miss that train). Jessie's pathetic decision making does not help, as she allows herself to get sucked into a horrible situation by repeatedly abandoning all common sense.

The performances are uneven and trace the infused character depth. Emily Mortimer stands out as Jessie deals with a wild roller-coaster of events and emotions; Woody Harrelson never quite grabs hold of Roy; and Ben Kingsley munches the Russian scenery as he decorates Grinko's dialogue with folkloric idioms.

Although undoubtedly bumpy, Transsiberian is spectacularly scenic and suitably twisty.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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