Brad Anderson (The Machinist) assays Hitchcock territory, and does a fine job in this riveting thriller about an American couple traveling across Russia on the titular express train and getting caught up in drugs, murder and the watchful eye of a suspicious detective. Having wrapped up a charity mission in China, the mid-western hayseed Roy (Woody Harrelson) and his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer), a recovering drug addict, decide to book passage on the Transsiberian and take in the famed Russian hinterland.
They end up sharing their berth with another couple — a young American runaway, Abby (Kate Mara), and her Eurotrash boyfriend Carlos (Eduardo Noriega). With his easy smile and bedroom eyes, Carlos works his scruffy, roguish charms on Jessie, who’s taken with his aura of mystery and bad-boy mischief. He’s everything she left behind in her free-living drug days, and still pines for privately. While Roy is busy doting over train engines and rail gauges (he’s a train buff), Jessie shares an impulsive intimacy with Carlos that starts a chain of consequences that ends fatally for Carlos. That’s when Anderson and co-writer Will Conroy’s plot kicks into gear.
What was a holiday one minute turns into a nightmare of paranoia, guilt, and suspicion as Jessie now harbors the secret of what befell Carlos while the two were out in the desolate country. The suspense gets racheted to tantalizing levels when Roy and Jessie are approached by Grinko (Ben Kingsley) who claims to be a detective on the hunt for drug smugglers believed to be on board the Transsiberian. When Jessie discovers a load of Russian dolls that belonged to Carlos stashed in her luggage — dolls containing heroin — she realizes the mess she’s gotten herself into. What’s more, it dawns on Jessie and Roy that Grinko’s intentions are more ruthless than he’s letting on.
Anderson and Conroy do an excellent job of drawing out the tension between Jessie and Grinko while the oafish Roy becomes the unsuspecting barrier protecting Jessie from her potential inquisitor. Jessie can’t hold out forever, of course; soon enough, the two find themselves in Grinko’s clutches.
In neat and deft maneuvers, Anderson and Conroy use the violence and desperation of their characters to drive them forward and against each other like chess pieces. The wintry Russian desolation makes for a bleak and menacing game board, for sure, of which this script and cast make maximum utility. The weakest link here — and the one factor that could’ve easily derailed Transsiberian — is the nauseating Carlos. The mystery man’s grinning, conniving persona is an unwelcome irritant, a derivative of a thousand Eurotrash cliches, and his exchanges with Jessie, while sexually charged, are generally pathetic in their see-through insinuations. While Carlos is the instigator of Anderson and Conroy’s entire premise, his character amounts to tedium which, thankfully, ends with his departure, leaving room for Kingsley to show up and take command of the narrative.
Kingsley sinks his teeth into his role, he’s clearly having a blast, and we take delight in watching the seasoned actor playing the dubious Grinko. Mortimer too comes to life once the peril to her character becomes immediate, and Anderson’s handling of Jessie’s attempts not to lose her cool vis-a-vis Grinko and Roy and to save herself from a desperate scenario would make Hitchcock smirk with quiet pride. It was the Master’s favorite set-up after all: An innocent who finds the murderer’s weapon planted in his hands, and who must now do his damndest to keep authorities off this trail.
Transsiberian never quite worked up the media attention it deserved in the festival or theatrical circuit in 2008. But as Hitchcockian thrillers go, it’s one of the smarter and more absorbing ones made in recent years. And it gives the enterprising and versatile Kingsley one of his juiciest and most memorable roles in years.
Directed by: Brad Anderson
Written by: Brad Anderson, Will Conroy
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega, Thomas Kretschmann
Runtime: 111 min.