Over the past decade, Director Brad Anderson has established himself as a visionary, highly original filmmaker -- from what was arguably his most lighthearted work, Next Stop Wonderland, in 1998 to the dark, terrifying world of Session 9 in 2001 and on to 2004's The Machinist, for which Christian Bale famously dropped to 120 pounds just before donning the cape and cowl for Batman Begins.
After working in TV for a few years, including a stint on television's best dramatic series The Wire (in my humble opinion) , Anderson returns to features with Transsiberian.
Woody Harrelson stars as a naive American tourist named Roy who is traveling from China to Moscow with his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer). During their travels, the two befriend foreign travelers Abby (Kate Mara) and Carlos (Eduardo Noriega). Meanwhile, two overeager, slightly sketchy Russian police (Ben Kingsley and Thomas Kretschmann) are scouring the train for drug smugglers. As it so happens, Roy and Jessie's new travel buddies might just have a few secrets up their sleeve. When Roy misses the train's departure during a stop-off, Jessie is left to her own devices with Abby and Carlos as she tries to reconnect with her husband.
Transsiberian is a slow-building, highly atmospheric Hitchcockian-style thriller. What may appear to be an inconsequential side note to the plot line in the beginning is likely to payoff by the end for viewers paying close attention. Anderson demonstrates a tight command of the material, which draws partial basis from the director's own adventures on the Trannsiberian.
Woody Harrelson plays the closest incarnation to his breakout character from Cheers, Woody Boyd, that we have seen in the 15 years since. After countless edgier roles ranging from a serial killer to a bowling hustler and just about everything in-between, Harrelson seems at home in his original, small-town nice guy persona. Thankfully, Roy is a little smarter than Boyd, otherwise Jessie might be in some big trouble relying on him to come to her rescue. Harrelson offers a strong, understated performance that ranks as one of his best.
Mortimer's work is one of the keys to Trannsiberian's success, which is even more impressive when you consider that she stepped in for original star Samantha Morton only weeks before production. The character of Jessie is much more complex than the midwestern wife of Roy we meet in the beginning. Through her interactions with her husband during a not-so-steamy sex scene in the beginning, and on to her dealings with Abby and Carlos, Morton carefully unweaves the darker side of Jessie.
It's probably redundant to say Ben Kingsley is also good. What else would you expect from one of the finest actors working in cinema today? I can't reveal too much about his character without giving away key plot details, but suffice to say Kingsley's presence adds the necessary weight to the role.
Trannsiberian is the kind of smart thriller you don't see very often these days. Modern ADD filmmgoers may find the lack of snappy quick-cut editing and flashy camera work jarring at first, but the patient viewer should find Trannsiberian to be a rewording experience. Hitch would be proud.