Transsiberian opens Friday in select theaters
Brad Anderson's Transsiberian isn't a top-rank thriller: It's highly effective in places, laughable in others. But, as a representative of a badly degraded genre, this tale of treachery and drug trafficking aboard a train traveling from Beijing to Moscow has a certain workmanlike integrity.
In the opening scene, we meet Ben Kingsley as a Russian narcotics cop; he's investigating a grisly murder and subsequent theft of heroin. But the bulk of the film's action concerns characters we meet in Beijing: Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are married Christian missionaries who've just wrapped up a trip to help Chinese children. Roy is full of comically good cheer and boundless optimism and curiosity, while Jessie, we learn, has a past shaded with substance abuse and wanton sexuality. Now, the uneasily married couple is taking its first real vacation, a trip aboard the titular train that takes them through Mongolia and Siberia, deep into the snowy heart of Dr. Zhivago country.
On board, they share a cabin with another Western backpacking pair: Carlos, a leering Spaniard, and Abby, a hostile Goth teenager from Seattle. Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara) are a sketchy duo: They know a lot about the qualities of a good forged passport, and then there's their duffel bag full of not-so-ordinary Matrushka dolls. But despite their dubiousness, Carlos and Abby are the only other English-speaking travelers on a train full of bad energy, so Roy and Jessie gravitate to them for security.
Oh, there's lots to strain credulity in this film, and some truly unfortunate lines. But Transsiberian still has its virtues. Chief among them is the remote location, the train-bound set and the real vulnerability that strangers feel in a strange land. There is some nifty bag switching, and a very tense interlude in a remote way station as Jessie is forced to pass a night without her husband—and in the company of the now thoroughly sinister Carlos and Abby.
Even if the film has pleasurable associations with such Alfred Hitchcock efforts as The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest, it does take a detour into more modern sensibilities with a gruesome scene that owes more to Hostel (itself a cautionary parable about Americans backpacking in Eastern Europe). Still, the Hitchcock influence is a mostly fortuitous one. Today's so-called Hitchcockian thrillers are nothing more than a series of shock edits and cheap, music-cued jolts. In Transsiberian, Anderson demonstrates a more acute understanding of how to construct an intelligent thriller: A heroine with a guilty conscience—as in Psycho—is a good place to start. Another is to make the limitations of the film's locations—a train, wintertime Siberia—integral to the story. And finally, through much of the film, the pacing of scenes is as deliberate and unhurried as slowly heating water. At its best, the tension in Transsiberian gets ratcheted up in the old-school manner; at its worst, it's a routine, forgettable picture.