December 29, 2008



Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ****

In Bejing, an American married couple Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) has just finished up with a church mission. A happy, simple train nut, Roy wants to ride the famous Transsiberian Express, which runs through to Moscow, before taking a plane back home. Jessie, an amateur photographer, goes along with him. The train crosses through remote, snowy terrain, a great place for something devious and sinister to happen. They meet a young backpacking couple, Abby (Kate Mara) and Carlos (Burnt Money's Eduardo Noriega). Carlos shows Jessie his collection of "nesting dolls" and they kinda/sorta flirt a little. The train pulls away from its latest stop and Roy is no longer aboard. Anderson hints at some kind of foul play, and leaves Jessie to fret and worry about whether her husband is dead or alive. Ben Kingsley co-stars as a Russian narcotics detective who further complicates things.

Writer/director Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist) next uses expert sleight-of-hand to juggle drugs, murder, and various shades of villainy at precisely the right times. Even if you've seen lots of movies of this type and can figure out exactly what's going to happen, with Transsiberian Anderson takes great pleasure in the pure form and execution of it. The film also scores points simply by using Jessie as its film's driving force rather than the genre's usual male hero; she's far richer and more deeply developed than most thriller heroines, and Mortimer comes away with the film's most mesmerizing performance because of it (Kingsley's great Russian accent notwithstanding).

Transsiberian also uses its atmosphere to great effect. On the train, the characters fight for space and privacy, and any number of cranky Russians -- such as the tea lady -- are ready to bark at them for transgressions unknown. Anderson further ramps up the tension by filtering sugary American pop tunes into the cabins. This small, shoulder-to-shoulder space then explodes into the great, white open during the film's second half: snow, sky and cold, as well as spidery tree branches and crumbling, cavernous buildings. Best of all, before any of this starts, the film spends at least a reel on -- get this -- developing the characters! By the time the trouble starts, we know all about Roy and Jessie, what they mean to each other, and what's at stake. Roy is more than just a clueless American tourist and train nerd and Jessie is more than a girl with a past; they surprise you with their humanity.

DVD Details: First Look's DVD comes with optional 5.1 or 2.0 audio tracks, optional English or Spanish subtitles and some trailers. And that's it. Hopefully people will check out this sleeper anyway.

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Posted by cphillips at December 29, 2008 11:30 AM
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