It has to be risky to name your movie Transsiberian. Let’s give writer/director Brad Anderson points for that straight away. Generally the term “Siberia” calls to mind unpleasant things: labor camps, forced exile, punishment narratives. Want some popcorn with that? Anderson does: The title suggests that our train trip might be heavy and possibly political in its miserabilism but the journey that he has in mind for his protagonists makes room for standard movie conventions and thrills.
A short prologue warns us that dark deeds are to follow. A rather large stack of drug money has gone missing — drug mules are suspected. This crime will be met with punishment once the Russian mobsters Grinko (Ben Kingsley) and Kolzak (Thomas Kretschmann) find the perpetrators. Or are these criminals cops? (The film won’t win any prizes from the Russian tourism board for the frequent blurring of those job descriptions). Cut to: an American couple in Beijing. Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) have just completed a charity stint with their church group and they’re headed home from China. There’s just one hitch: Roy has a thing for choo-choo trains and Jessie, a moody photographer, seems up for the six day adventure he wants on the Tran Siberian Express rather than a simpler flight. Off they go!
Haven’t these two seen any movies? Chatterbox romances of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy aside, are train trips ever pleasant experiences for movie characters? There are almost always shady traveling companions, trust issues with strangers, and murder ahead. And that’s just in normal train movies. Graft on the Americans abroad “should’ve stayed in Kansas” horror subtext that filmmakers are fond of and you know immediately that Roy and Jessie are headed for big big trouble. Big Trouble by Leaving China.
First stop: Shady traveling companions and trust issues with strangers. These come in the form of bad boy looker Carlos (Eduardo Noriega of Burnt Money fame) and his American girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara, who you’ll remember as Heath Ledger’s daughter in Brokeback Mountain). Roy, a stereotypically gregarious and loud American (Woody Harrelson in an unsubtle performance), trusts them immediately. His wife Jessie isn’t so sure. She has a troubled past, revealed gradually in the movie but apparent from the first low key notes in Emily Mortimer’s perceptive turn. She’s the one with the trust issues. But it isn’t just strangers that she’s wary of. She doesn’t trust herself either; not with alcohol, certainly not with Carlos who is aggressive about his sexual interest, not even with her own husband. She doesn’t want to get pregnant.
There’s a cheap red herring early on in this first act involving the depth of Carlos ill intentions, but most of the film’s first half is expressive, literate and intriguingly character based. Even when Carlos shows Jessie his stash of illegal Matryoshka (or Babooshka) nesting dolls and the plot pieces start clicking in predictably the film isn’t without intrigue, one film-turning shock and character rooted suspense.
Brad Anderson is most famous for directing Christian Bale through his horrifyingly skeletal role in The Machinist. The director isn’t requiring his actors to shed a dangerous amount of their physique this time out, but he still wants their inner demons to stick out like Bale’s rib cage did. For an ostensible thriller, the film spends a large amount of time staring at Emily Mortimer’s face. He’s gifted her with a meaty layered role and she repays him for the opportunity. Jessie’s actions are often maddening in the second half of the film but they don’t feel as unbelievable or far-fetched as they might have if a lesser actress was handling the complicated role. This actress doesn’t physically transform from film to film but she’s a true character actress: it’s hard to draw a through line between her sweet care giving sister-in-law in Lars the Real Girl, the self-esteem challenged neurotic in Lovely & Amazing, her poor little rich girl mousiness in Match Point or the overt sexuality of her role in Young Adam. Why isn’t this woman a bigger star?
As Ben Kingsley and Thomas Kretschman reenter the game, Transsiberian has already taken a violent turn into more traditional thriller territory. It stays there for most of the second half with unfortunately diminishing returns. Roy continues to trust too easily, Carlos and Abby’s fates become cemented with Jessie and Roy’s own and Kolzak and Grinko reveal their hands, too. All hell breaks loose… or at least parts of the Trans Siberian Express break loose. And it’s cold out there.
Siberia, true to popular conception, is a dangerous punishing land. Thankfully Transsiberian is not a punishing movie. There are times though when Anderson’s screenplay and direction attempt to shove an awful lot in, and do so awkwardly. Transsiberian is, I’d wager consciously, a Matryoshka doll itself. The crime drama holds a thriller. The thriller holds a character study. The character study holds a political film. In traditional nesting dolls the final miniature is usually the figure of a baby, which does not open. The smallest film within this film, the political one, is too tiny to hold another -indeed, there’s not much to it aside from a subversive kernel of an idea about American irresponsibility. There’s no baby inside. But in a neat unforced parallel we’re left to ponder (if we will) Jessie’s own childless state. The disparate movies within Transsiberian don’t fit as perfectly together as an expertly crafted Matryoshka might, but it’s an appealing movie object for examination nonetheless. Fans of smart thrillers or Emily Mortimer should open it up.
Nathaniel Rogers is a freelance writer in New York City. He is older than Penelope Cruz and younger than Nicole Kidman but ought never to be confused with Tom Cruise. He blogs daily at The Film Experience.
Film Reviews | July 21, 2008 | Comments ()