, 111 min, 2008
Director: Brad Anderson
Writers: Brad Anderson & Will Conroy (written by)
Stars: Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley
Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian, a slow-building, tightly-wound, nail-bitingly tense Hitchcockian thriller, is as mountingly unnerving a film as I can recall; a genuinely terrifying sojurn into a modern, international Twilight Zone.
The plot: Jesse (Emily Mortimer) and Roy (Woody Harrelson) are an American couple that has just finished a church-sponsored mission to help poor kids in China. Jesse is a photographer with a wild past and Roy is a nerdy train buff and a “safe” significant other. All is not perfect: he wants to take a chance on getting pregnant and she wants to avoid “putting down a root.” They have boarded a trans-Siberian train from Beijing bound for Moscow. Little do they know that their lives are about to change.
Innocently enough, Jesse and Roy meet their bunk-mates, Abby (Kate Mara) and Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), she a 20-year-old Seattle-based drifter and he a mysterious, older Spaniard, tall, dark and handsome – but vaguely dangerous. At a rest stop in a small Russian village, Roy goes missing from the train and Jesse is frantic, searching all over, unable to find him. We can feel Jesse’s palpable sense of fear and growing suspicion before Roy turns up (apparently, he simply missed the train and is in a hotel somewhere).
Meanwhile, as Jesse and Abby grow closer, finding much in common, Jesse’s ill feelings about Carlos’ true nature intensify and she begins to wonder if he is who he appears to be; a conversation about fake passports and some matryoshka dolls might be a clue. Disembarking from the train to do some sight-seeing near an old abandoned church, Jesse and Carlos come face-to-face with some unspoken connection between them, and more you’ll have to learn for yourself.
At roughly this point, Roy rejoins the train with his new bunk-mate (from the hotel), Grinko (Ben Kingsley), a former KGB officer turned narcotics investigator who thinks Jesse may be hiding something behind that pretty face, twisted by nerves, fear and paranoia. He may be right.
Brad Anderson is a thoroughly independent filmmaker who began in rough romantic comedy (Next Stop, Wonderlandand the sci-fi-tinged Happy Accidents) before seguing into thriller mode (The Machinist, Session 9) and this is perhaps his most controlled and best film to date.
In a scenario borrowing much from Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), though not its sense of humor, Anderson manages to find a tense, claustrophobic and mountingly disturbing way of portraying the modern tourist experience; if Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) was a tourist’s wet dream, this must be some kind of vivid nightmare.
Mortimer is utterly sympathetic as a woman who makes a mistake out of fear and desperation, attempts haphazardly to cover her tracks, and then must cover the attempts at covering her tracks. The ways in which she uses her eyes, mouth and the very sweat on her face to convey fear are a lesson in realistically acting “terror.” Harrelson is effective in the token role of the dumb husband who loves his wife but seems to be clueless throughout. And Ben Kingsley is terrific as a cop who may have some secrets, may be on the up and up, and is certainly intimidating even to those who’ve done nothing wrong. This is, simply put, one hell of a thriller.