Transsiberian is a well-crafted, suspenseful thriller, a gradual build even Hitchcock would approve.
It opens on a morally ambiguous Russian detective played by this summer’s favorite Oscar winner, Ben Kingsley. But this is the finest of the five movies he’s appeared in this summer. He inspects a crime scene involving the usual drugs and money, but a knife buried in the back of an icy corpse’s head suggest this isn’t going to be a feel-good road trip movie.
The story switches to the protagonists, a married couple taking a long train ride vacation after doing humanitarian work in China. Roy is a cheery train buff with a genuine, contagious excitement for new adventures. Jessie is a quiet, graceful former wild nomad with a passion for photography.
But their trip through the frozen tundra is plagued with bad omens that only get worse. Chinese police routinely walk the corridors with drug-sniffing dogs, hoping to capture the “rats,” or the drug mules bringing heroin to Europe. A foreboding passenger warns them, “It’s best not to tango with the police in China… and Russia. Especially in Russia.”
Jessie and Roy are an odd couple on screen, but it feels authentic with terrific performances from the beautiful Emily Mortimer and the wholesome characterization by Woody Harrelson, a different but well-done role for the actor.
Their strange pairing may be a reason why their cabin mate Carlos by Eduardo Noriega, a dark, handsome drug smuggler with a much younger girlfriend Abby by Kate Mara, easily preys on the sexual curiosity of Jessie. His advances weave into the blanket of stifling tension enveloping them in the claustrophobic train cars.
Director and co-writer Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9) placed hand-held cameras in the tight spaces, capturing the cramped, uneasy relationships between the strangers as the train jostles along to no where.