'Transsiberian': hit that was missed

By The Beacon | February 4, 2009 9:00pm

By Elliot Boswell Staff Writer

Some movies have a way of slipping through the cracks. "Transsiberian" had both the bad luck and unfortunate timing to be released in theaters on July 18 of last year, the same day as 2008's highest grossing film, "The Dark Knight," so despite a cast that includes two Best Actor Oscar nominees, it barely registered amidst the Heath Ledger media blitz. And it's a shame. "Transsiberian," now out on DVD, is a Hitchcockian neo-noir with great top-to-bottom performances, relentless suspense, a bleak West-meets-East diagnosis and may be the most underrated film of last year.

The story follows Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer), an American couple who just finished with a church-sponsored mission trip to Beijing. Roy is a gregarious, honest-as-the-day-is-long, Midwestern Christian, but Jessie, we find out later, was a wild itinerant in her youth, so the two decide to take the famous Trans-Siberian Railway up to Moscow before returning back to the States. Aboard the train, Roy soon makes friends with the young Spaniard Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and his traveling companion Abby (Kate Mara), and the two couples fall in together.

Before long, however, the trip turns sour. The railcar hostess is viciously intolerant of foreigners, Roy gets left behind at one of the stops, and Jessie begins to feel that something is slightly off with the suave charmer Carlos. Shades of xenophobia become apparent. There is whispered talk of heroin smugglers using the railway to transport their goods.

This is all before the film crosses the thriller's Rubicon, that irretrievable point of no return that galvanizes the genre into life. Jessie makes a grave mistake; well, not a mistake so much as she lets herself get into a situation where she is forced to make a very ugly decision. She flees, meeting up with her husband again onboard the train, where the ever-friendly Roy has since fallen in with Ilya Grinko (Ben Kingsley), a Russian narcotics officer who claims that he is pursuing some smugglers. When Jessie fails to answer Grinko's questions convincingly, he responds with the ominous "In Russia, we have expression: with lies, you may go forward in the world, but you may never go back." And the stage has been set.

"Transsiberian," directed by Brad Anderson, is shot in grey and blue hues that give all the characters a ghostly appearance, as though they are already freezing to death in the tundra of the Russian north. There are false starts, many of them, and we are often lead to believe that events will transpire too early, but Anderson wisely reins us in, preserving the twists for a more opportune moment. As with many good thrillers, the Hitchcock influence is not only implicit but explicit as well: loving visual homage is paid to both "The Birds" and the iconic final train scene in "Shadow of a Doubt."

The cast, sort of a small ensemble outfit, works seamlessly through the bumps, drops, and reversals of fortune that the film throws at them. Mortimer, the vastly underrated English actress, gives a nervous, unsettling performance, and the ever-impressive Kingsley is alternately venomous and ingratiating - my Russian's a little rusty, but I thought his accent was convincing. As the shucks-to-goodness Roy, Harrelson gives a frustrating performance that borders on parody, but he's always been a strange actor, prone to sometimes to taciturnity ("No Country For Old Men"), sometimes to overplaying ("White Men Can't Jump") so I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

Most interesting, however, is the film's treatment of the Americans' interactions with the native Russians; 4H meets the Motherland. Roy is clueless, harmless but clueless, bumbling across the barren wastes of Siberia with the assumption that everyone speaks English and that everyone is as honest as he is. He's warned by a kindly fellow traveler early in the book that if you want the truth in America, you can read a book, but if you want the truth in Russia, you visit the gulags; it's a clear forewarning that the law here is not as transparent as it is in the States. In our world of romanticized, beatnik roving, we would do well to remember it.