They Caught a Bad, Bad Train
2008 // UK - Germany - Spain - Lithuania // Brad Anderson // August 31, 2008 // Theatrical Print
C - Allow me to clear up one thing that the marketing of Transsiberian has unforgivably muddled: Woody Harrelson might have first billing, but Emily Mortimer is the clear protagonist and the star of this serviceable—albeit raw-nerved—thriller. Director Brad Anderson begins with a meaty premise: two guileless Americans find themselves enmeshed in a heroin trafficking plot during their journey aboard the titular train. This is not a Locked Room mystery in the tradition of Murder of the Orient Express. Jessie (Mortimer) and Roy (Harrelson) spend as much time off the train as on it, and the film clearly owes a debt to Hitchcock's more harried, dashing thrillers in its action set pieces and its fascination with Jessie's responses to desperate, often uncanny, circumstances. Unfortunately, Anderson lends barely any thematic heft to the tale. While Jessie's plight often has us sweating bullets in the moment, Transsiberian's themes are confused, when the film-makers bother to articulate them at all. The result is a film that offers excitement and opportunities for "What Would You Do?" speculation, but little else.
In a era when thrillers so often rely on characters that are not what they seem, Transsiberian is bracingly straightforward in setting up its conflicts and twists. If you've seen the trailer, you already know the nickel version. Roy and Jessie are making an adventure of their return from a missionary trip in China by taking a train to Moscow. Roy is a good-natured but clueless schmuck, a variation on the bartender that established Harrelson's career, only without the sheepish humor. Jessie is the anxious dreamer, but with a wild past and a schizophrenic demeanor that permits Mortimer--who was all rural Minnesota sweetness in Lars and the Real Girl--to play against type a little. Sharing the couple's sleeping car is a pair far more acclimated to the perils of third-class world travel. Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) is a smooth Spanish bullshitter with an unseemly eye for Jessie, while Abby (Kate Mara) is an American girl from the wrong side of the tracks, all heavy eyeliner and furtive glances. The wild card is Grinko (Ben Kingsley), a dour Russian narcotics officer who is both maddeningly cunning and blatantly corrupt.
The plot is Transsiberian's raison d'Ãªtre, so I won't say much more about it. There are harrowing acts of violence, a suitcase full of heroin that doesn't look like heroin, and lots and lots of deception and track-covering, particularly on Mortimer's part. Anderson's story and construction aren't stunningly original, but neither are they distractingly clichéd. The film borrows snippets from familiar thriller scenarios, cobbling them together into an contraption engineered to evoke cold-sweat tension. Guilt and suspicion are the currency of the script by Anderson and Will Conroy, and also the cornerstones of the film's most effective scenes. One of the more chilling moments involves a character browsing through pictures on a digital camera, where one particular image lurks like a tell-tale heart.
Harrelson is utterly and deliberately off-putting as Roy, an aw-shucks dimwit whose determination to do the right thing doesn't mitigate his jerk streak or his obliviousness to his spouse. (More than once, Mortimer pops in, panting and tearful, and Harrelson wonders, "Is something wrong?") Harrelson is actually a comfortable fit for the character, and does a passable job with the portrayal. However, the film has no use for him other than as ballast and to provide manly decisiveness at a couple of key moments. (Sexism much?) It's Mortimer's burden to hold our attention, and that she does quite well. She presents Jessie as a woman mired in a furrowed adolescent aimlessness after years of risky living. Her actions seem a little bewildering at times, but they're ultimately reconcilable with her twinned personality, part reckless ferocity and part impotent despair. The duller examples of the thriller genre depend on characters that behave in a relentlessly stupid manner. In contrast, Transsiberian's events tighten with exhausting tension around Mortimer due to to a couple of stupid mistakes. No honest person would deny suffering similar (or worse) lapses in judgment. Kingsley's Detective Grinko echoes the sly, relentless qualities of an older stripe of American gumshoe, even as he embodies a distinct post-Soviet gangster-cop archetype. It's a performance delivered from a hammy, eminently watchable stance, which serves Transsiberian's need for a menacing villain nicely.
Which brings us to the film's primary flaw: the sheer functionality of the whole enterprise. The film is exactly what it appears to be, no more, no less. Dark, violent, and ultimately forgettable, it's the stuff of enjoyable entertainment, but not necessarily stirring cinema. That's not to say that Transsiberian feels tossed-off, at least as a thriller. Its hunger for squirming viewers is palpable, and Anderson realizes the genre's components with a enviable skill and ruthlessness. In contrast, the director tends to lose his way when he gestures hazily towards themes such as the persistence of personal demons and the limits of compassion. These currents are presented with a kind of dreary half-heartedness. Furthermore, there's a muddled quality to the film's moral conception of Jessie: Is her subsumed assertiveness responsible for her plight, or is it the only thing that saves her hash? With one hand Anderson despairs over the unforeseen costs of deception, and with the other he promotes the virtues of noble lies. Transsiberian would have been better if it eschewed the awkward, mushy moral lessons and maintained a sharp focus on its principal strength. Namely, its visceral portrayal of a woman's grueling crawl through a waking nightmare.