Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Review: "Transsiberian"

Critics tend to throw around the word "Hitchcockian" anytime someone makes a thriller with any kind of twists or turns. The problem is that since Hitchcock pretty much wrote the book on suspense, most modern thrillers owe some kind of debt to Hitch, but few ever live up to his standards.

Brad Anderson's (The Machinist) latest film, Transsiberian, however, comes pretty damn close. It's not on the level of Hitchcock's best works, but you can feel the presence of the master hanging over every frame.

The film wastes no time introducing us to Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer), a relatively normal couple who are in China with a church group helping Chinese orphans. As their trip comes to an end, Roy, a train enthusiast, decides to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow to see the sights before going home. While on board, they meet another couple and become close friends, but this new couple has a dark secret, a dangerous secret, one that threatens to tear Roy and Jessie apart, and throw them into an investigation by the corrupt Russian police force.

Anderson begins slowly building the tension from the get go, letting the barren Siberian wasteland reinforce the characters' isolation as they head out into white wilderness where no one is safe. He does an excellent job of grinding on the audience's nerves, before heading off into unexpected directions, teasing us into one direction and then throwing us into another. Transsiberian is a slow burner, creating an atmosphere of impending disaster, but when it finally arrives it's not at all what is expected.

His use of the barren snow covered landscapes are both chilling and beautiful - their natural beauty belying their dark past and current illegal activities. I appreciated the fact that he didn't go for the obvious American tourists in foreign nightmare scenario a la Hostel. The fish out of water sense is there, things are always more frightening when surrounded by the unfamiliar, but it isn't a central theme and isn't exploited for cheap effect.

There are some fine performances on display here. Harrelson is great fun as the dorky good boy Roy, who is the very embodiment of the awkward, insulated American traveling abroad. Mortimer is also quite good as his former bad girl wife, itching to get out of the shadow of Roy's overbearing niceness. But the standout here is, as usual, Ben Kingsley as a Russian detective whose motives may not be completely on the up and up. As in The Wackness, Kingsley walks away with every scene he is in, letting his playful Russian joviality mask hidden motives.

Transsiberian is no masterpiece, but it is a taut, well crafted, and highly entertaining thriller that really delivers the goods. Part mystery, part tourist nightmare, it takes the audience on a ride into the heart of darkness. Anderson has shown a keen eye for suspense of the less-is-more vein, allowing the audience to create their own shadows on the wall where none exist. I think Hitch would be proud.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

TRANSSIBERIAN; Directed by Brad Anderson; Stars Emily Mortimer, Woody Harrelson, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega, Thomas Kretschmann, Ben Kingsley; Rated R for some violence, including torture and language

2 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Nice review! I almost wound up seeing this last night at the Cinema Village, but after uccessive nights with ELEGY and RED, I stayed home. Your proclomation that it's a taut thriller has however piqued my interest again.

nick plowman said...

I want to see this...