Friday, February 19, 2010

Riding the 'Transsiberian' can be deadly

Transsiberian (2008)
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Woody Harrelson, Eduardo Noriega, Kate Mara and Ben Kingsley
Director: Brad Anderson
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An American couple (Harrelson and Mortimer) traveling from Shanghai to Moscow by train are befriended by a pair of shady fellow travelers (Mara and Noriega). They are soon trapped in a web of lies and deceit as the wife tries to cover up a murder and her guiless husband befriends a Russian police detective (Kingsley) with secrets of his own.

"Transsiberian" is a well-written, character-driven thriller that when it's at its best will remind you of Alfred Hitchcock greats like "Blackmail" and "The Lady Vanishes". It's a morally complex thriller that will keep you guessing as to what's coming next and that takes full advantage of both the cramped quarters of the Trans-Siberian Express, the forgotten, crumbling Russian towns it stops at, and of the icy expanse of Siberia in winter, a place that seems more confining than the train cars because, despite the vast empty spaces, there is nowhere to escape to.

Unfortunately, when it's at its worst, it will bore you or have you shaking your head at the nonsense you're expected to buy into.

Basically, the film is a little too slow in getting started. It's great that director/co-writer Brad Anderson takes some time to establish the people on the train and the atmosphere of Siberia, but he does it over and over and over to the point where it starts feeling like he's attempting to pad the film's running time. And, as it builds to its conclusion and every character's true nature is revealed, the film swerves into action movie territory of a like that would have been more at home in a Paramount-released "Bulldog Drummond"-type adventure (just to stay with my comparing of this movie to than the Hitchcockian drama that we have here). The ultimate defeat of the bad guys is also a little deus ex machina in nature, but it was set up earlier in the film so it could have been worse.

The material sandwiched between the slow beginning and over-the-top ending is, however, very good. The actors all do excellent jobs at bringing the characters to three-dimensional life, something which the script supports them in by giving each character their own voice and unique nature. Woody Harrelson is better in this film than I think I've ever seen him. Also, I've not seen sequences featuring a character who killed in self-defense and who is now trying to escape the crime since Hitchcock's "Blackmail", and a lot of that can be credited to Emily Mortimer's performance as Jessie.

If you're a fan of Hitchcock-type thrillers, you should check it out. Just be patient with the beginning.


  1. Yeah, I recall seeing that one last year when my brother rented. I really like Brad Anderson and actually was not aware that it was one of his films. That explains a lot, actually.

    As to all of your complaints, I pretty much agree. The pacing was all over the place there. After 'Session 9' and 'Sounds Like,' we should not really expect much else. They're good films, but they don't 'rush to the gate' or anything.

  2. I watched and reviewed "Session 9" a few years back. I have no specific recollection of it, though, other than being disappointed in the ending. I'll have to dig through the RT archives and repost it....