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by Jay Seaver

"Trains can't deviate from their routes, but the trip can still be exciting."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: The train thriller is almost a genre in itself: You get a group of people on a train, something bad happens, and the characters have to figure out who can't be trusted by the rest, and the impending arrival at the destination is a ticking clock. Brad Anderson's latest is a nifty train thriller, in part because it doesn't always play by the rules.

The Transsiberian railroad of the title runs between Moscow on one end and Beijing and Vladivostok on the other. After a brief opening in Vladivostok, where Russian narcotics detective Ilya Grinko (Ben Kingsley) is investigating a drug-related murder, we meet up with Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer), a married couple from Iowa on a church mission. Roy loves trains, while Jessie has taken up photography. At the border, they're joined by Abby (Kate Mara) and Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), a young couple who have been teaching English and Spanish in Japan. The couples take to each other. At the next stop, Roy gets left behind, and when Jessie gets off at the one after that to wait for him, Abby and Carlos join her - but is it because it's not safe for Jessie on her own or because they're nervous about the police sniffing around the train?

So there's your first difference from most train movies - the train is making stops with passengers getting on and off. As much as the story plays on the claustrophobia of having no place to go or hide on a moving train at times, a lot of the important action takes place at the stops. That's part of the fun of taking the train, and lots of train movies wind up twisting themselves into knots to figure out ways to keep everyone on the train when it stops. Instead, the script by Anderson and co-writer Will Conroy opts to toss a few surprises at the audience. As much as it sets up the basic plot of the story early on (you'd have to be pretty dim to not figure out why Carlos only lets Jessie examine that matryoshka doll), the first big twist is surprising both in and of itself and in how many new directions the film can go in. Anderson and Conroy have another moment or two like that up their sleeves, and it's exciting not to know what's going to happen next.

Brad Anderson's previous movies have fallen into two categories - romances built around female characters (Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents) and nightmare scenarios with mostly male casts (Session 9 and The Machinist). He mixes it up a bit here by centering this thriller around Emily Mortimer's Jessie, and it's an interesting if not perfect set-up. Mortimer is great when it comes time to ratchet up the tension, really selling us on the character's desperation as she tries to find a way out of her situation, only to be stymied at every turn. I don't know if we're ever totally sold on Jessie's bad-girl past; as much as there's clearly some tension and restlessness in their marriage, she seems a bit too reformed at settled much of the time.

Similarly, Jessie's insistence that Abby is basically a good girl is a little tough to swallow; Kate Mara plays Abby as far more twitchy and suspicious than Eduardo Noriega's Carlos. It does make sense that Jessie believes from experience that there's something decent behind Abby's abrasive exterior, but it doesn't quite connect as well as the simple thriller elements. That's not a knock on either Mortimer or Mara; the story just doesn't showcase the hidden parts of their characters in a flashy or obvious way; it's an "awful close" case. The guys don't have as much hidden: Woody Harrelson plays up Roy's simplicity; he's basically a small-town guy with a big heart and a big train set, though it not surprising when we see him able to make quick decisions - he's simple, not stupid. Eduardo Noriega is casually charming as Carlos, taking advantage of how well the audience knows the basic story to avoid heavy-handed foreshadowing of his darker side. Ben Kingsley is fun to watch as a hard-edged cop who plays off Roy unexpectedly well.

As much as the screenplay has a few nifty twists, it is conventional in other spots. Sometimes the film telegraphs what's going to happen a little too obviously; a long shot of Jessie's camera bag in one scene and a flashback to what must have happened off-screen there seems a bit like overkill, and some of the more graphic bits of violence are more than the movie needs. Anderson is good at playing up the swerves, and there are a few really well-played action beats in the film. He does a good job playing to the movie's strengths - any time he can go to Emily Mortimer under pressure, he does, and he also does a fine job of immersing the audience in the environment (Lithuania doubles for Siberia), giving the film a great sense of place.

The train movie is a bit of a dying form, as most passengers today opt for air or the trips go too fast to really fill a movie. "Transsiberian" is a worthy entry in the genre, with a good knack for when to obey its rules and when to break them.

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originally posted: 04/25/08 02:43:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/24/15 Langano Great flick. 4 stars
2/15/10 mr.mike Patience in the beginning will be rewarded. 4 stars
11/21/08 aliceinwonderland OK movie compared to this years crap ! 4 stars
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  DVD: 04-Nov-2008


  DVD: 04-Nov-2008

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