Sundance Film Festival ’08 review


Woody Harrelson as Roy

Emily Mortimer as Jessie

Eduardo Noriega as Carlos

Kate Mara as Abby

Thomas Kretschmann as Myassa

Ben Kingsley as Grinko


Brad Anderson’s latest thriller is his most mainstream picture to date, boasting scope, solid performances all around and beautiful snow-covered landscapes but – and you had to know a “but” was coming – it stirs a heightened level of frustration in the viewer. The margin of stupidity on display in this film is so grossly overwhelming that, by the end, no implausible twist and no ridiculous decision made on behalf of the characters should surprise you. Anderson told a packed house at Sundance the seed for “Transsiberian” arrived when he had traveled abroad on the eponymous railway. Co-written with Anderson by Will Conroy, it’s one story that should have never left the station without some serious narrative fine-tuning.

Tapping into his Hitchcockian (with a dash of Polanski) side, Anderson sets a tale laden with deception, drug-running, double-crosses and infidelity against the stark white backdrop of Russia. A daffy, bespectacled Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer play Roy and Jessie, respectively, a couple en route from China to Moscow after doing some good deeds with their church. Their smiling exteriors, however, hide a relationship on the fritz. Jessie’s got a dark side, we’re led to presume, she keeps in check. That is, until passengers Carlos (Noriega) and Abby (Mara) enter Roy and Jessie’s life. The couples hit it off. They drink. Sightsee. All the while we observe just how blind Roy is to Jess’ unhappiness. The presence of Carlos only complicates matters when the sexual tension heats up between this Spanish stud and Jess.

Until this point, “Transsiberian” is a competent drama about relationships. Roy and Jessie are starving to vent their problems to anyone but each other. Mortimer and Noriega milk the most out of Jess and Carlos’ lingering glances. The former deftly handles the persona of a woman attempting to right some wrongs in her life, although it’s amusing to conjure up images of this petite gal running afoul of the law, as she alludes to. Mortimer outshines Harrelson – here falling back on usual Harrelson-isms as a good-natured soul with an affinity for train- in every respect and she’s thoughtfully complimented by the dashing Noriega (Jacinto from “The Devil’s Backbone”). He amplifies his sex appeal, doggedly chiseling away at Jessie’s hardened shell. It’s Mara who, at best, feels like window dressing as Carlos’ girlfriend – a nomad from Seattle traveling through Europe.

Anderson prefaces this group’s introduction with an opening scene that finds Russian Detective Grinko (Kingsley, fresh out of movie jail) investigating the murder involving stolen cash. The fact Grinko virtually disappears from the film for a spell hints that something unfortunate is going to befall our dysfunctional travelers. And something does. Roy finds himself left behind during a brief stop leaving Jessie, Carlos and Abby to wait at the next town until he can catch up. During this time, however, Carlos invites Jessie out to explore the countryside. Only their excursion takes a tumultuous turn that leaves Jessie in serious hot water with a bag-load of drugs and a dead body to be held accountable for. Just when she is reunited with Roy – and she thinks she had outrun her current troubles – Grinko enters the picture and begins to suspect something is wrong.

“Transsiberian” derails from here on out and enters laughably absurd territory. Essentially, Jessie wraps herself in a patchwork of lies. She lies to Grinko. Lies to her husband. She devolves into a despicable human being and the only thrill in investing in her at this point is to see what brainless move she’s going to make next. Her plight becomes a comedy of errors – whether she’s trying to ditch a camera bad of drugs (note to Jessie: lose the whole bag) or verbally sparring with Grinko and his partner Myassa (“Resident Evil: Apocalypse’s Thomas Kretschmann lending some muscle).

Anderson draws out a modicum of suspense, and most surprisingly, isn’t afraid to draw upon a slice of torture-inspired violence to elicit cringes. But the most alarming thing about “Transsiberian” is its absence of Brad Anderson – the man who drove railroad spike-sized pangs of dread through your nerves in “Session 9” and crafted the portrait of a haunted soul in “The Machinist.” “Transsiberian” could have been phoned in by anyone with a minute grasp of this genre (you can’t constitute it as horror by any stretch). Decent turns from the cast and handsome photography by Xavi Gimenez (“The Abandoned”) cannot hide the jaw-dropping narrative choices Anderson allowed his film to steer into.

Pedestrian and not even on par with his last two efforts (even his “Masters of Horror” entry “Sounds Like” excelled), “Transsiberian” is Anderson’s slow, unfortunate ride through mediocrity.

Source: Ryan Rotten