Trains once constituted an important role in the cinematic thriller. Claustrophobic and narrow, trains featured as the primary location in dozens of classic suspense films such as The Narrow Margin (Fleischer, 1952), The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, 1938) and The Tall Target (Anthony Mann, 1951). The modern era of cheap air travel has perhaps contributed to the visible decline of the railroad as a cinematic setting, particularly in North America. However, for some directors like indie craftsman Brad Anderson (The Machinist), the near-extinct sub-genre’s exotic charms and constricted space still holds an ardent quality.
Spanning over 9,288 kilometres, Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway becomes the backdrop for Anderson’s latest film, Transsiberian. The film stars the always welcome Emily Mortimer alongside Woody Harrelson, as Jessie and Roy: a married American couple journeying on the famed railway’s weeklong voyage from Beijing to Moscow after working at a Christian mission in China. Roy, a goofy and upbeat extrovert, quickly befriends the couple’s cabin mate Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and his younger, Seattle-born girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara).
Jessie, a reformed ex-alcoholic and keen amateur photographer, tries to immediately ignore the globe-trotting couple and in particular the handsome Carlos’ advances toward her. When Roy accidentally forgets to re-board the train during a brief interlude, Carlos hopes to make amends with Jessie by taking her to a remote location filled with local beauty and danger. Meanwhile, an ex-KGB detective (Ben Kingsley) continues to keep his watchful eye on the four travellers.
The glamour and mystery formerly associated with the trip during the Soviet era is inverted in Anderson’s thriller into something far murkier and dangerous. Anderson’s vision of post-Communist Russia through Xavi Gimenez's cinematography is not awash with capitalist millionaires, but is glumly painted in shades of grey over a seedy, desolate and portentous setting housing a multitude of sins. Anderson chiefly utilizes the expansive barren snow-filled landscapes surrounding the railway line to augment the feelings of fear, isolation and the futility of escape progressively encircling his American protagonists.
Anderson quietly inserts it all into the film’s paranoid atmosphere and provocative strangeness. A superbly entertaining thriller, Transsiberian maintains the sub-genre’s distinctive qualities- threatening foreigners, hostile locals, suspicious activities- and neatly packages them into a continental morality play. Thereupon, the thematic spectres of truth, deceit and moral ambiguity swirling around Anderson's film largely dominate the proceedings.
Principally embodied in both Kingsley’s Grinko and Mortimer’s Jessie, these themes are modelled and executed to good effect, until the film’s final third. The film’s fatal switch from a carefully sculpted paranoid thriller into a torture-filled action suspense film in the last thirty minutes of Transsiberian undoes much of Anderson’s previously assured foundation work. In the process, Anderson also crucially jettisons the majority of the silently mistrustful observations held by the film's protagonists toward the alien environment and the clash of cultures.
Fortunately, the film is helmed by two great performances. The vastly underrated Mortimer is brilliant as the frazzled, guilt-ridden tourist, while Kingsley reclaims the ugly side he cruelly demonstrated in Sexy Beast as the ethically ambiguous Russian official. Eduardo Noriega is also splendidly devious in a supporting role as Carlos. On the other hand, Kate Mara brings little to the hard-nosed Abby. Arguably, the film’s weakest performer is Woody Harrelson, whose irritating Midwestern tourist seems unlikely to have either shacked up with Mortimer’s former bad girl or have desired to take such a trip in the first place.
Crisply plotted and tightly wound, Transsiberian frequently asserts to being a superlative taut thriller, only to later regress into unnecessary hyperbolic set-pieces. Underpinned by two wonderful performances from Mortimer and Kingsley respectively, Anderson’s journey into genre territory eschews much of the narrative’s pulp elements in preference of clammy emotions and glacial textures. The gambit is implemented with efficiency until the film’s final third, when Transsiberian regrettably derails. In spite of a grave slip-up in its closing stages, Transsiberian is still a highly enjoyable thriller aided by both Xavi Gimenez's frostily bleak cinematography and its lead efforts from Kingsley and Mortimer.