Director: Brad Anderson
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh
PLOT: An American couple takes a trans-Siberian train ride across Russia, but things take an odd turn when they meet another mysterious young couple.
One of the reasons I like writing about movies is that it gives me the opportunity to talk up great movies that I’ve discovered off the beaten track. Movies like the stunning stop-motion film “Mary and Max” (2009), or “Sunrise” (1927), hands-down the greatest silent film I’m ever likely to see, or “Wild Tales” (2014), an Argentinian anthology film that plays like “The Twilight Zone” crossed with Quentin Tarantino.
Or “Transsiberian”, a virtually unknown film from 2008 that is one of the finest examples of Hitchcockian suspense in the modern era. It was an international co-production of – get this – Germany, the UK, Spain, and Lithuania. It was co-written and directed by Brad Anderson, a man who’s directed a LOT of television episodes, and so has a good sense of efficiency and economy in his style and pacing. It has yet another stunning Ben Kingsley performance as a Russian narcotics detective. And it turns the screws on the heroine of the story in such a way that you can tell exactly why she’s doing what she’s doing, when every good instinct says she SHOULD be doing the exact opposite.
I feel compelled to summarize the plot a little, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.
After a brief prologue involving a police investigation in Vladivostok, we meet Roy and Jessie (Harrelson and Mortimer), a married couple traveling home from China after a faith-based missions trip. They decide to take a 6-day train trip across the Russian continent because Roy feels it would be nice to take an adventure…plus, he LOVES trains. He’s one of those enthusiasts who don’t realize when they’re boring you with talk of gauges and coal-burners and cow-catchers. Jessie seems like a nice woman, but she seems to be keeping this adventure at a slight distance; you can tell she’d rather be flying coach than spending six days in a double-berth cabin. I empathized with her right away. They make a good couple, even though he wants kids and she doesn’t, she smokes and he’d like her to quit, he drinks and she doesn’t, et cetera. Pretty normal.
A little while into their trip, Roy and Jessie meet the couple they’re sharing a cabin with, Abby and Carlos (Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega). Abby seems much younger than Carlos, but Jessie lets that slide, especially because Carlos seems to take an immediate interest in Jessie, and he doesn’t seem too concerned about hiding it. Abby seems annoyed, but says nothing. Roy is too jazzed about being on trains and interacting with the locals to really notice. Carlos also seems to be pretty cagey about the souvenirs he’s carrying around in his suitcase…
At one of their scheduled stops, both couples leave the train to stretch their legs. When the train leaves for the next leg, Jessie suddenly realizes something: Roy’s not on the train. She didn’t see him get on. In fact, NO ONE can recall seeing Roy re-board the train. The movie plays a little by making us THINK one thing has happened, when it may or may not have…we can’t be sure.
And then, in true Hitchcock fashion, things start to spiral into one unexpected development after another, until the movie becomes about something ENTIRELY different than what you thought it was going to be. Without getting into too many other details, Jessie finds herself trapped in a lie that she absolutely cannot back out of, no matter how much she wants to, because doing so would cause more harm than good. Even when she’s presented with a life or death situation, she STILL can’t go back on it, and the story is constructed so tightly that it’s never for a moment unclear on her motivations. You always see the “why” to her actions.
This other level to the movie is what separates it from the pack and places it in a higher weight class. The screenplay is a masterpiece of suspense. There’s a scene involving her camera that had me yelling, “Oh, NO!” at the screen…and I’ve SEEN the movie before. You won’t believe the amount of suspense that will be generated with a slightly-open camera bag, or the fact that there’s never a garbage can around when you need one, or just the absence of a train stewardess. (Yes, I’m being purposely vague.)
The movie stands alone because the characters behave EXACTLY as they should, with perfect logic, and it never feels forced. The bad guys are never too stupid, and the good guys are never too smart. (They get pretty lucky a couple of times, but what are you gonna do?) I don’t think I’m giving it away that by the end, some characters are happy and others are not quite so much, but I don’t think you’ll be able to guess who will last that long.
This is a treasure to be sought out and…uh, treasured.