19 August 2008 | Chris Knipp
Old fashioned train thriller with fresh, intense atmosphere
Trains are famously atmospheric, especially on long runs across remote areas like China to Moscow through Siberia. Voilà: the Transsiberian railway. The quartet who meet in a compartment aren't really likable, but you're thrown in with them, like on a train--the way Roy (Woody Harrelson), his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer), Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara) are thrown together in this tight, exciting, basically old fashioned thriller. This is the new Russia of big money and mafia corruption, but the ingredients are tried and true. Strangers on train: there's something Hitchcockian about the way innocent people get roped into incriminating situations and then appear perhaps not to be so innocent after all.
They're on a very long ride, and in the overheated intensity of the cars (you can't seem to pry the windows open) things are blown out of proportion. They're too naive, too suspicious, too sexy. Roy's too pious and decent and upbeat. Look at the donut and not at the hole, is his motto. He's a very Christian hardware dealer and Jessie is his wife with a wild past that comes out when she meets another woman. They're returning from some sort of Christian outreach project in China. Roy's like a little boy: he loves trains. The Express is like a huge toy all for him. He's very devoted to Jessie, but the sex hasn't been going too well.
The next day into the compartment comes a younger couple. Carlos and Abby say they were teaching in Japan. However, Carlos, a handsome devil, who has his eye on Jessie, seems to know a little too much about how to get past customs with a dodgy passport. He shows off theirs proudly to Jessie, who's had a bit of trouble with the Russians. Her passport and Roy's are too pristine, he says. It makes the officials suspicious. His and Abby's are packed with stamps. They look "real." He's got some of those Russian dolls, the little lacquered things like shoots only with babushka heads, one inside the other. He says his are special, and he's going to sell them for a lot of money.
Well, he is, but that isn't why.
The train makes long stops, and Roy is so fascinated with the cars, he gets involved in a conversation with Carlos, and then the train takes off without him. Abby and Jessie have had a heart-to-heart and Jessie has confessed she had a lot of drug and alcohol problems. Roy says they "met by accident" because they met in an accident, when she was driving drunk and he stayed with her in the hospital. That's when he told her the donut and the hole story.
Carlos is dangerous, handsome, and predatory. Jessie has that wild side gesturing wildly to be let out again. And he could be the one to tease it out.
When Roy gets left behind Jessic has to get off at the next stop and wait for him. Carlos and Abby insist on getting off with her and keeping her company. And that's when the trouble really begins. Stuff happens. Surprising stuff. Or not. Depends on how good you are at predicting this kind of plot.
But the thing is, Brad Anderson and his writing collaborator Will Conroy have put together a story rich in atmosphere, that really convinces you all this could only happen here, on the train, in the snow, in the none-too-touristic rural Russian hotel and on a bus, and out in the middle of nowhere. The outdoors is all snow. The train cars are rickety and yet tough. The woman attendants are all Nurse Ratcheds who speak nothing but loud angry disapproving Russian. The food sucks, but the vodka flows. (Jessie refuses it, but when things get tough, she downs a shot. This is a world bad enough to make all but the strongest lose their sobriety, and she wears her heart on her sleeve.) The Russian fellow travelers are a mixture of camaraderie and hostility.
And then, of course, along comes Ben Kingsley, as Grinko, detective of Russian Narcotics Bureau (no articles, please). When Roy reappears, he's made friends with Grinko. Well, before that, early on, we happen to have seen Grinko examine a man at a table with a knife buried in the back of his head. Cherchez les drugs.
I can't tell you any more. I can tell you that the trains are so lovely they make you understand Roy's enthusiasm. Whole cars give off a smoky ooze of white frozen air whenever you look at them. To heighten our sense of the visual in all this, Jessie is a good amateur photographer, armed with an expensive digital Canon with a big lens, and the images on screen often jump with a hand-held camera, but also step back to take in long views of a skeletal ruined Russian church out in the waste, or to snap a hawk in the sky, or a bunch of huddled old ladies at a station near a rubbish bin where Jessie is trying to dump something incriminating. But wait. Mustn't tell.
It all hinges on moral ambiguity--people who used to be bad, who still are bad, or who turn bad, and getting trapped in your lies. There are some questionable details, especially at the end. Mortimer, usually a supporting actor, has depth and a central role here. Kingsley is as good as ever. Unfortunately the character of Roy is bland and conventional, Abby silent, Carlos more a smile and a sexy body than a personality. But the milieu itself is the richest character, and the too little known Brad Anderson, who made Happy Accidents and The Machinist, again proves his originality with material that follows a time-honored template but with a very fresh feel that keeps you absorbed from beginning to end.