The long sidelined subgenre centered on mysterious doings aboard exotic trains is put back on the tracks in “Transsiberian,” an engagingly up-to-date melodrama steeped in local color and steered by a treacherous sense of morality. Stalwart indie helmer Brad Anderson spreads his wings considerably here by moving further into action and genre territory than he ever has before with a film that will likely achieve more theatrical traction internationally than in the U.S. but looks promising everywhere at tube and home viewing destinations down the line.
One of the most famous train routes in the world, the Transsiberian links Beijing and Moscow with 7865 kilometers of track for a journey that requires a week to complete. It’s a trip Anderson took after studying Russian in college in the late ’80s, and one embarked upon herein by two Yanks, married couple Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer), after having put in a church-sponsored stint helping children in China.
Earlygoing is agreeably spent just soaking up some of the sights, as the unglamorous old-style train leaves Beijing Station, chugs past the Great Wall and stops at the Russian border to change wheels, required by the gauge difference. The couple banter with colorful passengers in the dining car, but cut short an initially lusty interlude due to a disagreement over trying to make a baby.
They are soon joined in the four-berth compartment by another couple, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), a handsome, priapic Spaniard, and Abby (Kate Mara), a hard-looking Yank who doesn’t say much. Except for the abstinent Jessie, they all get drunk with the other passengers to fill the journey’s long hours, while Carlos doesn’t miss a chance to insinuate his sexual interest to the rattled Jessie, who, during a station stop, pairs off with Abby and reveals her checkered past as a wild young woman, very much the sort that would have taken up with someone like Carlos.
When the train starts out again through the snowy Siberian forest, Roy isn’t on board, so the remaining trio get off at the next rural station to await his promised arrival on the next day’s train. Carlos presses his advances on Jessie, especially during a bus trip they take to the middle of nowhere to visit the ruins of a beautiful church for Jessie to photograph.
First thumping surprise in Anderson’s and Will Conroy’s script arrives at the 50-minute mark, and more lay in wait. It comes as no surprise, however, to confirm that Carlos and Abby are drug dealers, nor that the train voyage is thereupon joined by narcotics inspector Grinko (Ben Kingsley), who has been seen in the opening sequence investigating a drug-inspired murder in Vladivostok.
Things get hairy for all concerned during pic’s second half, which includes another murder, a torture-driven interrogation, hand-to-hand combat on board the train and some very queasy moral decisions made under the stress of sheer survival. Especially as seen through Kingsley’s character, a grizzled vet of the Soviet days with a pragmatic assessment of old-style corruption versus the new brand, the film can be viewed as a microcosmic snapshot of the value system of the new Russia, even as its interest remains squarely on the narrataive.
Usually seen in appealing if limited secondary leads, Mortimer is blessed with the only fully developed character here and runs with it in a very flavorful performance as a reformed bad girl presented with a whopping opportunity to backslide. If the other characters, especially that of her husband, had been similarly filled out, “Transsiberian” could have been even more complex and compelling.
But Roy is disappointingly conceived as a simple country boy, a gee-whizzing rube that tiresomely reads like a several decades-old stereotype. As written, he can’t possibly hold his own against the worldly Carlos, whose life story one can pretty much imagine. Abby remains enigmatic, although it doesn’t matter much in the overall scheme of things.