Strangers on a Train
The nightmare of travel gone awry
by Molly Templeton
TRANSSIBERIAN: Directed by Brad Anderson. Written by Brad Anderson and Will Conroy. Cinematography, Xavi Giménez. Music, Alfonso de Vilallonga. Editor, Jaume Marti. Starring Emily Mortimer, Woody Harrelson, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega and Ben Kingsley. First Look Features, 2008. R. 111 minutes.
A truly suggestible person might watch Transsiberian, director Brad Anderson (The Machinist)’s new film, and decide never to leave home again. This is a film in which everything enjoyable about travel — the strange, limited spaces; the camaraderie of fellow travelers; the possibility of adventure and experience — is turned into a nightmare of danger and deceit. Those nice folks you’ve been drinking with in the dining car (or the hostel lounge, or the traveler-friendly pub)? What do you really know about them?
The first nice travelers we meet are Jessie (Emily Mortimer) and Roy (Woody Harrelson), a married couple on their way home after spending some time being do-gooders with a church group in China. His love for trains is a good part of the reason they opt to take the Trans-Siberian Express, the famous railroad from Beijing to Moscow which is now not glamorous but tired, creaky, cramped and a little bleak. Their cabinmates are a young American woman, Abby (Kate Mara), and a Spaniard, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), perpetual travelers on their way to an undisclosed location. Abby is sullen, Carlos is charismatic, and clearly something is off about the pair. But Roy is an aw-shucks sweetheart who wouldn’t think ill of anyone, and Jessie sees a kindred spirit in Abby; the scene in which the two women stroll through a train station, Jessie’s demeanor shifting as she tells Abby about the past that gives them something in common, might be the film’s best. As Jessie talks, her body loosens, her jaw shifts, and it becomes quite clear how this former bad girl has boxed herself in and set restrictions to keep her life changed.
Then, of course, things go horribly awry. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t take the obvious tack — at least not with Jessie, who finds herself in a terrible (and thoroughly expected; sometimes Transsiberian is less than subtle) situation involving not only Abby and Carlos, but Grinko (Ben Kingsley), a bitter Russian detective with strange methods for finding the truth. The Russian baddies are a little stock, and certain parts of the film’s climax require a generous suspension of disbelief (and an averted eye if you’re not a fan of torture), but Anderson does effectively create tension around Jessie’s plight. Cold light, snow-covered landscapes and claustrophobic train hallways strengthen the feeling of isolation, and the only bright colors are the matryoshka dolls in Carlos’ backpack. Mortimer, pale and pinched on Jessie’s journey to a frozen hell and back, holds everything together as Jessie falls apart, wandering through the train looking for salvation in an open window or desperately clinging to a story that omits just enough of the truth. There’s a certain moral ambiguity to Transsiberian’s close, but it’s neither as deep nor as interesting as it should be; a good deed (of sorts) and a faint justification for a violent action seem intended to let a character off the hook too easily. “In Russia,” Grinko tells Jessie, “we say that with lies you may go forward in the world, but you may never go back.” Grinko’s words may turn out to haunt him, but for Jessie and Roy, a pair practiced in the art of leaving the past behind, perhaps they have less weight.
Transsiberian opens Friday, Oct. 10, at the Bijou.