Transsiberian

Emily Mortimer's just hanging around.

Emily Mortimer's just hanging around.

(First Look) Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Eduardo Noriega, Kate Mara, Ben Kingsley, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Stinton. Directed by Brad Anderson.

There is a romance about train travel. As we ride the rails, we are in a world of our own, looking out onto the world beyond. In this world, we meet our fellow travelers, not all of whom who are what they would seem to be at first glance.

Roy (Harrelson) and Jessie (Mortimer) are an American couple returning home after doing missionary work in China. They decide to take the long way home by taking the Transsiberian railway from China to Moscow.

At first, the trip seems to be a pleasant adventure as Jessie, a photographer, gets plenty of opportunity for fascinating snapshots while Roy gets to play tourist. Most of the train’s staff speaks no English and are as surly as only Russians can be, but that doesn’t diminish Roy’s enthusiasm as they travel through exotic-sounding places that they’d only read about in Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky novels.

They meet another couple from the West; Carlos (Noriega), a carefree Spaniard, and Abby (Mara), his much-younger girlfriend. Where Carlos is worldly, Abby is naïve. They seem an odd couple, but then again so are Roy and Jessie. Roy is a straight-arrow churchgoer who is dedicated to charitable works and steam engines. He is child-like in many ways. Jessie has far more skeletons in her closet than most women her age. Wild in her younger years, she has a hard-fought sobriety that she clings to like a four-year-old girl clings to a favorite doll. She notices that Carlos is immediately attracted to her.

After a stop in Irkutsk, Jessie is alarmed to find that Roy has missed the train. Nobody has seen him and she can’t get in contact with him. She gets off at the next stop to wait for him and Carlos and Abby volunteer to wait with her. Carlos offers to show Jessie a great place to take some pictures. They hop on a bus and walk into the countryside after getting off in a small village. What happens next is…well, I won’t tell you to ruin the surprise.

As thrillers go, Hitchcock pretty much has the market cornered but director Anderson (The Machinist) shows a flair for the genre. He takes Hitchcockian elements from movies like The Lady Vanishes and North by Northwest and gives them a nice twist. Add to this the bleak Russian landscapes and the grim, suspicious people who inhabit it and you have the makings of a nice thriller.

Harrelson has become a really solid character actor, and he imbues Roy with the kind of naïveté that would have made his “Cheers” character Woody Boyd seem sophisticated and urbane by comparison. Mortimer, a veteran British actress, also does a solid job as Jessie, who is trying to overcome a sordid past. Kingsley is alternately charming and menacing as a Russian narcotics detective who, like nearly everybody on the train, isn’t all that he seems to be. He’s one of the best actors in the world, and he shows why he gets that kind of consideration here.

The movie is spine-tingling and leaves you on the edge of your seat until the very last frame. Rather than attract big stars to the leading roles, Anderson wisely cast solid character actors, every one of whom are outstanding actors in their own right. He allows his cast and the stark landscape to capture the imagination and attention of the viewers. The result is one of the better independent thrillers to come down the pipeline in a very long time.

WHY RENT THIS: The bleak Siberian landscapes and a solid cast make this one of the most intense thrillers to come out of the independent circuit for quite some time. Sir Ben Kingsley brings charm and menace to his role. Writer/director Anderson takes Hitchcock’s plot elements and twists them into something special.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lots of sexual tension but no sex as such.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fairly graphic torture scene and a murder that may be a little too intense for some.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Brad Anderson’s first film was a horror short called Frankenstein’s Planet of Monsters.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: (500) Days of Summer

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