Matthew Ross’ “Siberia” is the rare film involving diamond smuggling, international intrigue, double-crosses and Russian gangsters that might have actually been better off jettisoning all of those elements. Starring Keanu Reeves as Lucas Hill, an American diamond dealer who winds up in a remote corner of Siberia trying to salvage a botched deal, the film tries to use its b-movie framework as a jumping-off point into the sort of bleak romanticism that has powered auteurist thrillers from “The Conformist” to “The American.” But in the end, it can never decide what kind of film it wants to be, drifting into drab formlessness when it needs to find moments of poetry, and reverting to dull clichés when it wants to indulge its thriller instincts, winding up as frosty and uninviting as its setting.
Reeves has always been an excellent if idiosyncratic actor, but his highly specific range can turn into a weakness when he’s misused, as he is here. Quiet and internal as ever, but never given the opportunity to draw on his zenlike stillness or physicality, Reeves struggles to find much of a center in his hazily-drawn character. We know that he has a wife, played by Molly Ringwald, who appears in exactly two scenes, one via FaceTime. He clearly has some sort of combat training and a facility with spy-craft, if the numerous shots of him setting up new burner phones are anything to go by. He also speaks Russian, and tends to conceal this ability until the precise moment that he can make a “gotcha” reveal. Beyond that, he’s a blank canvas.
We first meet up with him in St. Petersburg, where he’s arrived to rendezvous with his partner Pyotr to sell a cache of ludicrously expensive blue diamonds to a depraved Russian heavy named Boris Volkov (Pasha D. Lynchnikoff). Pyotr, however, is nowhere to be found, and Lucas convinces Boris to give him an extra two days to come up with the jewels, jetting off to the desolate Siberian mining town of Mirny, where Pyotr’s brother lives.
Considering St. Petersburg and Mirny are 8 hours away by air, Lucas ought to have only a few desperate hours on the ground to somehow find his missing partner, retrieve the diamonds, and head back before Boris unleashes his goons on him. Yet he settles into town as though there for a quiet, extended layover. Aside from leaving a few messages on Pyotr’s voicemail, he seems content to just wander through the snow to a nearby bar, whiling away the hours with a vodka bottle and eyeing the joint’s proprietress, Katya (Ana Ularu). She notices him, and flirts with that combination of frostbitten cynicism and kittenish sensuality that seems to define Russian womanhood in the imaginations of American screenwriters. He gets beaten up on her behalf; she takes him home; he makes her French toast; they have sex a few times; they spend more time at the bar; he goes out on a bear hunt with Katya’s suspicious brother…
If it weren’t for the strangeness of their pacing and placement – isn’t Lucas’ life supposed to be in imminent danger? – these scenes could have formed the basis of an interesting mood piece, as Lucas deals with guilt over his infidelity and attempts to ingratiate himself into the primal masculine rituals of the town’s menfolk. (Ross, whose debut “Frank & Lola” took a far sharper look at a damaged love affair, flaunts his eye for telling small details here, from the sound of Lucas’ wedding ring clinking against a candle to the harsh fluorescent lighting of a downmarket café.) But just as the film starts to build a languid groove out of this tonal detour, we’re snapped back into the diamond dealer plot, and the film loses its bearings permanently.
While the moody Siberian scenes at least challenge expectations, the noir narrative never ventures far from the most wildly familiar territory, piling on visits from FSB agents, wild cocaine parties, doubts about the diamonds’ authenticity and phone calls from slippery South African operatives in flailing gambits to drum up deeper interest. At one point, Katya is involved in an icky bit of sexual exploitation that seems designed to prove the film’s grittiness, but only serves to erode audience sympathies further.
“You see too many spy movies,” Lucas quips to one of his mysterious counterparts in a stagy bridge encounter straight out of a spy movie, but derivativeness is only one element of “Siberia’s” real problem. As with fake diamonds, it’s possible to mimic most of the surface elements of a good thriller, but you can never make up for the missing essence within.