This has been the summer of my cinema discontent. I've felt like Sarah Palin killing caribou on a bridge to nowhere. There are carcasses all over the place.
But every once in a while an offbeat movie comes along that is a surprise. Last week it was "Bottle Shock." This week it is "Transsiberian."
I went to see "Bottle Shock" primarily because one of my favorite actors, Alan Rickman, is in it. I went to see "Transsiberian" primarily because one of my favorite actresses, Emily Mortimer, is in it. Both movies prevail beyond the performances of their respective leads.
"Transsiberian," like 2007's "The Lookout," is one of those films that stay with you. Maybe it's the snow. In an age of cookie-blaster CGI, the feeling of "Transsiberian" is unique and palpable. Photographed by Xavi Gimenez on location in Lithuania, Spain, and China, the frigid terrain is a character. So too is the old Transsiberian train that slowly and relentlessly crosses the frozen tundra on its seven-day journey from Beijing to Moscow. As the USSR deteriorated, so did the legendary train. It's now cramped with stolid peasants, loud and boisterous men who love their vodka and backpackers who travel in tight quarters and have to eat bad food. The train is old and worn, but it's still a prime vehicle for mystery.
On the train going from China to Moscow are a married couple from the United States. The husband Roy (Woody Harrelson morphing occasionally into Dagwood) and his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are returning from a church-sponsored activity, teaching children in China.
Roy is earnest and gregarious; he owns a hardware store in Iowa and has a train set in his basement. Jessie -- who had a wild youth -- is a gifted amateur photographer who continually takes pictures on their trip. She's still restless. Roy wants children, but she seems reluctant.
Joining Roy and Jessie in their small four-berth cabin on the train are two backpackers, Spaniard Carlos (Eduardo Noreiga) and his younger American girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara), an enigmatic vagabond from Seattle. Joining the train in mid-transit is Grinko (Ben Kingsley), a fatalistic, Russian narcotics cop. The travelers and the cop get involved in a plot of intrigue and treachery.
Director/co-writer Brad Anderson, who studied Russian in Russia and took the famous train in the 1980s, creates a mood that is dark and evocative. Some of the photography is unnecessarily dark, but perhaps this contributes to the moral myopia.
Unfortunately the character of Roy is not as motivated as he may have seemed on paper, so the moral dichotomy and motivation are not as exact as they should be. Roy is more silly than moral, and his decision to lie does not have the effect it should have.
But Anderson creates moments that are riveting, although at times he veers into the unbelievable. When Jessie snatches her camera away from the cop just in the knick of time, it strains credibility. But as Hitchcock once told me, "Logic is dull."
Anyone with an imagination should guess most of the twists, but there still are a few surprises. And Anderson has learned suspense from the master, Sir Alfred. Anderson also utilizes many of Hitch's themes: fear of the police, voyeurism, lack of communication, and someone on the run. He uses them to potent advantage.
Mortimer simmers, smolders, and crackles as the restless woman who becomes desperate. She gives one of the best performances of the year.
Kingsley adds world-weary gravitas as the Russian cop. Harrelson is serviceable in an incomplete role. The train outacts him. "Transsiberan" takes us on a journey into moral wilderness. I think Hitch would buy a ticket to this grueling and haunting ride.