Movies in Brief: ‘Transsiberian’

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

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Director Brad Anderson’s “Transsiberian” is a throwback to railroad thrillers that were a staple of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Even the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, made a number of such films. But the concept ran out of steam in the second half of the 20th century, when interstate highways and air travel became more popular than the rails. Given that the notion of a fast-paced thriller based on Amtrak is absurd, the genre needs something such as the treacherous network of railways connecting Beijing and Moscow to give it modern-day relevance.

Jessie (Emily Mortimer) and Roy (Woody Harrelson) are a married couple from Middle America en route to the Russian capital following a church mission in Beijing. Onboard the train, the pair shares a cabin with a shady Spaniard, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), and an American runaway type, Abby (Kate Mara). When Roy wanders off at a pit stop and fails to reboard in time, Jessie must get off the train at the next stop and wait for him to rejoin her the following day. Carlos and Abby volunteer to accompany her, but their ulterior motives eventually lead to torture and murder.

Mr. Anderson, who first garnered attention with whimsical romantic comedies such as “Next Stop Wonderland” and “Happy Accidents,” has since made a credible transition to thrillers, with “Session 9” and “The Machinist.” The captivating “Transsiberian” is another impressive addition to his filmography. It stays on point even when the screenplay, written by Mr. Anderson and Will Conroy, becomes increasingly reliant on convenient coincidences.

The trek can hold viewers’ interest throughout, despite the fact that the twists and turns don’t kick in until the second half — a testament to Mr. Anderson’s directorial skill. Even with an American filmmaker and recognizable stars, “Transsiberian” is reminiscent of a foreign film. It is not simply another entry in the catalog of domestic movies with exotic locales, such as the “Bourne” and “Hostel” franchises. Mr. Anderson, who studied Russian in college and made a journey similar to the one that Jessie and Roy set out for in “Transsiberian,” demonstrates an affinity for the snowy landscape and chilly atmosphere. His film also doesn’t come off as a travelogue the way “Lost in Translation” did. Unfortunately, the well-plotted effort fails to avoid the pitfall of the one-dimensional foreign villain. It’s a good thing that the omnipresent sexy beast Ben Kingsley, who plays the Russian narcotics detective Grinko, makes it easier for us to look past the obviously clichéd nature of his character.

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