I only know writer/director Brad Anderson from his horror picture Session 9 (2001), a film that struck me as being the work of someone who had access to a terrific location (a crumbling, disused insane asylum), but really had no idea how to use it. In his latest film, Transsiberian, Anderson has come up with at least three terrific locations—a deteriorating concrete bunker, the decaying shell of a Russian Orthodox church and the Trans-Siberian Railroad itself—and this time, he has lots of ideas of what to do with his settings. And most of them are good. Some are even brilliant.
Transsiberian boasts a strong central premise. Following a stint in China, husband-and-wife missionary workers Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) decide to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad—a journey of several days—to Moscow. The more we see of the pair, the more it becomes obvious that things are not exactly right between them. Roy wants a child; Jessie doesn’t. There’s a paternal streak in Roy, owing to Jessie’s past and her status as a recovering alcoholic and/or drug user. Things become complicated when they meet another couple, Abby (Kate Mara, Shooter) and Carlos (Eduardo Noriega, The Devil’s Backbone). There’s an immediate tension between Jessie and their new friends—the reason for which becomes clear as the film progresses.
The major thrust of the plot kicks in when Roy—a train aficionado prone to saying things like, “Look at this boiler!”—gets left behind at a station where there’s an array of old steam trains in the rail yard. It should be a simple matter of just waiting for Roy at the next stop—something Abby and Carlos are willing to do with Jessie—but this is deepest backwoods Russia and nothing is that easy. For that matter, little is quite what it seems.
In the meantime, Roy becomes friendly with Grinko (Ben Kingsley), a Russian narcotics agent on the trail of drug smugglers, who spends idle moments practicing his English on Roy and complaining about how much better things were in the old Soviet Union days. What happens from this point is better left unsaid. You’ll be able to guess some of what happens, but some of it you probably won’t.
Because Transsiberian is a suspense thriller set on a train, it’s constantly being compared to Hitchcock and his frequent use of train settings. Number Seventeen (1932), The 39 Steps (1935), The Secret Agent (1936), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Strangers on a Train (1951) and North by Northwest (1959) all have key scenes set on a train, or are almost entirely set on a train. In design, Anderson’s film most resembles The Lady Vanishes. In tone, it has more sinister elements. The Lady Vanishes is essentially a romp thriller, whereas Transsiberian is a much grimmer, almost nightmarish affair—not in the least because everyone on the train harbors one or more secrets. In fact, Transsiberian is probably spiritually closer to Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), a very different kind of thriller.
Similarly, as a thriller, Transsiberian is probably a little wanting. If you want pure excitement, that takes a while. Anderson is all about mood and character. There’s not much action till late in the film (at which point, he doesn’t stint on the thrills), and the characters are often impenetrable and not very likeable. To the degree that any of them—even our nominal heroes—become likeable, it’s through their guilty secrets that this happens, because their secrets are all that make them recognize their shared humanity. And this is never verbalized, only suggested, which has much more in common with Sternberg than Hitchcock.
Anderson hasn’t made a great film here, but he’s made a very good one. Just don’t go to it thinking it’s a fun “train thriller.” There’s no romance to—or on—these trains. The Trans-Siberian Railroad depicted here has nothing to do with the lushness of the Orient Express of Murder on the Orient Express (1974), or even the quirky quaintness of the trains in The Darjeeling Limited (2007). These are grubby, filthy, rundown trains that fit the tone of the film, with its emphasis on decay—both moral and literal—and deterioration. Rated R for some violence, including torture and language.