Judge Gordon Sullivan always avoids strangers on a train.
You can't escape your lies.
Brad Anderson scored big in my eyes with Session 9. It was a creepy little film that played just enough with haunted house conventions to be engaging without going overboard. His next film, The Machinist, was a little too clever for its own good, but it showed that Anderson has talent as a director (especially working with actors of Christian Bale's caliber). What he seemed to need was a script that works in an established genre, but pushes those bounds only slightly. Transsiberian obviously belongs to the train-bound suspense genre (much like Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes), but brings such a degree of realism to the film that the sense of suspense is actually lost.
Facts of the Case
Roy (Woody Harrelson, No Country for Old Men) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer, Chaos Theory) are returning from a mission trip to China. Instead of flying home from Beijing, they opt to take the Transsiberian train to Moscow on their way home. On the train they met another young couple, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega, Che Guevara) and Abby (Kate Mara,Shooter), who seem to be nomads. Roy disappears when the train makes a routine stop, and Jessie's life becomes more complicated when detective Grinko (Ben Kingsley, Ghandi) starts investigating the train for drugs.
Cinema is not reality. It might seem obvious, but it's important to remind ourselves of this fact occasionally. No matter what a director does or doesn't do, film can only approximate reality. I mention this because sometimes a film comes close, like Transsiberian. The first half of this film is the most realistic I've ever seen: from the beginning it's tedious and filled with obnoxious people, just like real life.
This is not some snarky observation from a pretentious critic. No, I mean the first half of the film is very much like life, unpredictable and filled with strangers (some of whom are obviously sinister) waiting around. If the only requirement of a suspense film is that it keep you in suspense (i.e., you have no idea what's going to happen next), then Transsiberian is the best suspense film I've ever seen. Honestly, for the first 50 minutes or so I had no idea where the film was headed. The (un)happy couple boards the train and there are some drugs around somewhere, but no actual plot seems to be around. This, obviously, keeps the audience guessing. The only problem is that the "suspense" that was generated wasn't particularly satisfying. It felt like Brad Anderson was holding all the cards, and guessing got tedious very fast.
The other problem with Transsiberian is that once it leaves the realism of the first half behind, it immediately jumps to the predictable. I won't give any of the plot away, but suffice it to say that the second half plays out with few surprises. However, this half works slightly better because the plot is obvious. This gives Anderson the chance to give us his twist on some of the typical "suspense" elements. These moments are some of the only satisfaction the film offers.
Although I didn't enjoy Transsiberian, I still admire Brad Anderson as a director. Because of that, it's a shame that Transsiberian is being released with so few extras. The 30-minute making-of featurette is nice, but I found myself more interested in the production than the film, and the extras left me wanting more.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some people are going to be taken in by Transsiberian's brand of suspense. If you're looking for a film that doesn't mind taking its own sweet time setting up the plot, then this one might be for you. I don't think it's an unmitigated failure; it's just not as interesting as it could be. Certainly Brad Anderson shows that he has a talent for putting the camera in interesting places, and with the right script he could do wonders.
I wasn't kidding when I said the film was realistic, and one of its chief sources of realism is the actors. Woody Harrelson is absolutely amazing as super-tourist Roy. Most people have sat next to this guy before He's the kind of tourist who's telling you his life story five minutes after meeting you, complete with pictures of the kids. Harrelson perfectly captures charm and lack of guile that makes such people tolerable. Emily Moritmer is equally effective as Roy's long-suffering wife. She manages to convey her mixed feelings about Roy without resorting to melodrama. Finally, Ben Kingsley brings surprising depth to a role he could have slept through as former KGB officer Grinko.
Whether you enjoy Transsiberian or not, it's treated well in the Blu-ray format. The film's flat, blue tone is rendered almost flawlessly by the film. Only in a few dark scenes could I see any problems with noise. Detail was generally high, although not reference quality. This is easily the best low-budget film I've seen on the format so far (and it's a testament to Anderson's careful eye). The audio is also impressive. The rumbling train gives the low end a good workout, and dialogue was always easy to make out.
Like it or not, the Hostel franchise upped the ante for the stranger-in-a-strange-land film. With a talented director and an impressive cast, Transsiberian was in a place to raise the stakes even higher. Sadly, a script that takes too long to go anywhere keeps the film from reaching its potential. Fans of the film, however, are likely to be pleased with the presentation of the film on Blu-ray disc, despite the lack of extras.
Transsiberian is guilty of being an express train to nowhere.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
• "Making of Transsiberian"
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