For sheer suspense, cinematic history has few more wonderful settings than a train.
From Bejing to Moscow in eight days. The journey unfolds as the Transsiberian
Express plows westward with the promise of a Hitchcock type adventure of dining
cars, sleeping compartments, rear platforms, good guys, and villains. We settle
in with pleasure. Years have passed since we traveled by train, cinematic or
real. “Transsiberrian” builds suspense carefully for an hour or so before taking
an ill advised dive into the global appetite for graphic violence. With that
dive, this good thriller becomes ordinary.
Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jesse (Emily Mortimer) are two Americans heading slowly home from a stint of helping Chinese children in a program run by Roy’s church. Roy is the innocent American. Suspicious of nothing and unaware of the subtleties around him, he believes what he sees, believes the people he meets. His wife is more perceptive, more alert. She really didn’t want this trip, but Roy is a train buff and this is his dream. It’s his habit to get off at various stops to inspect whatever train yards are at hand. He is absorbed. At one stop, he fails to reboard the train. A terrified Jesse, along with their new friends, fellow passengers Abby (Kate Mara) and Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) get off at the next stop, hoping Roy will follow.
Being of a suspicious bent myself, I can tell you I wouldn’t have trusted either of the friends from here to the nearest fireplug. By now, we know the characters quite well; we know the train, a tube of safety hurtling across the vast unknown of the Russian landscape. We are foreigners in an alien land, and we are scared. We have one murder on our hands. And suddenly we are in Moscow where the movie loses its senses.
The filmmakers see fit to gain information by way of torturing one person to get to another. Their determination to hold our eyes to the graphic close-ups of the details is a piece of nasty cynicism. They think we want to watch, and that is a bad mistake.
As to the casting, Wood Harrelson is so American he is a walking Star Spangled Banner. As his wife, Emily Mortimer exudes just the right smoldering suspicion for a woman who knew better than to board this particular train. Eduardo Noriega also hits the nail with his “is he, or isn’t he” personality, but as his traveling companion, Kate Mara has the all too obvious vibes of a sullen young American runaway.
This movie had plenty going for it without the voyeuristic brutality toward the end. For sheer suspense, cinematic history has few more wonderful settings than a train with victims, suspects, and spies lurching through the speeding cars. Dual identities, fake documents, border boarding, sinister plots are the ingredients of a first rate adventure. A train is a filmmaker’s dream, and a good director would have recognized that suspense is generated not by blood, but by restraint and surprise.
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