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With: Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega, Thomas Kretschmann, Ben Kingsley
Written by: Brad Anderson, Will Conroy
Directed by: Brad Anderson
MPAA Rating: R for some violence, including torture and language
Running Time: 111
Date: 01/18/2008

Transsiberian (2008)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Train Reactions

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The title train in Brad Anderson's Transsiberian runs from Beijing to Moscow and crosses through some pretty remote, snowy terrain; it's a great place for something devious and sinister to happen. Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist) starts things with a bang as a Russian narcotics detective Ilya Grinko (Ben Kingsley) checks a crime scene after a drug deal gone bad; a frozen corpse sits bolt upright at a table.

Then we jump to Bejing where the American married couple Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) finishes up with a church mission. A happy, simple train nut, Roy wants to ride the famous Transsiberian Express before taking a plane back home. Jessie, an amateur photographer, goes along with him. Then they meet a young backpacking couple, Abby (Kate Mara) and Carlos (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. While waiting at the next stop, Jessie and Carlos hike to an abandoned church so that Jessie can photograph it.

Anderson next uses expert sleight-of-hand to juggle drugs, murder, and various shades of villainy at the exact right times. Even if you've seen lots of movies of this type and can figure out exactly what's going to happen, Anderson takes great pleasure in the pure form and execution of it. Moreover, Transsiberian is no mere copy. Just the fact that Jessie becomes the film's driving force rather than the man is a unique idea; 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. Perhaps that's the reason Transsiberian works so well; the film's plot and suspense are all a matter of skill, but the characters continue to derail us.

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

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