Film discussion

Throwback 10: Transsiberian

Film poster showing train and titleThe snow may be bright white but in Transsiberian it holds a vast amount of darkness; it is a film that still manages to have an air of relevance even after a decade. Our real world now is a strange place. Both America and Britain have had their politics allegedly blighted by Russian influence and the world feels like a much colder mistrustful place. With the icy cold location, twisted narrative and multicultural conflict of Transsiberian, it almost feels like the foundations were set. Of course, we know that this isn’t the case, yet such elements of Brad Anderson’s frosty thriller make the film feel just as on point now as it did then.

It starts simply enough. Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) have finished work with a Christian mission in China. Roy seems like the type of guy who can make friends with anyone, anywhere. Jessie appears much more reserved. While on the Trans-Siberian train journey from China to Moscow, the couple (well, Roy) befriend the type of odd couple that would make one wonder what the circumstances were when they got together. We have the Spaniard: Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), whose Cheshire cat grin clearly tells us that he’s hiding something. His girlfriend Abbie (Kate Mara) isn’t one to talk. Her forlorn look and piercing eyes appear to communicate a story that Carlos isn’t fully following. The two couples become friends as they navigate the quirky characters that ride along the long-haul train journey with them. Although Jessie is far colder to the new pair in comparison to Roy, she seems far from impressed with the “rare” Matryoshka dolls that Carlos is carrying.

Things come to a head when Roy misses the train whilst out sightseeing (some trains of all things) and Jessie decides to get off at a further stop wait for him to arrive on the next train. Carlos and Abbie make the choice of staying with Jessie to keep her safe. A stolen moment in a disused, broken church drives the story in an unexpected direction as characters who go missing come back into vision, while others fall out of view. We are also introduced to a new character, Grinko (Ben Kingsley) who listens to people intently but holds an expression which suggests that he doesn’t believe what he’s hearing.

Body lying in the snow

Transsiberian is a neatly packaged mosaic of deception. Not only do we have almost every character holding something back from others, but it is also crafted by a genre director who has excelled with features like this. Brad Anderson had two features under his belt before his low budget chiller Session 9 in 2001, an under-appreciated horror despite its fans. It’s a film that has characters lose their minds while abating asbestos from an abandoned mental asylum. I mention it here because Anderson removed a sub-plot, found on the DVD’s deleted scenes, which swayed the strange occurrences on something a little more mundane. The idea seemed to be to keep you guessing; and Anderson’s film could possibly have been interesting with those scenes kept in, but the decision streamlines the horror all a little more.

It’s no surprise however that Anderson tries similar in Transsiberian. A pivotal moment suggests a grisly fate for a character. We expect it for quite a long time, to a point that when we hear from the character again, it’s somewhat surprising. This only makes what happens afterwards even more compelling: it’s a moment that is directed so well that it helps unbalance the viewer for the rest of the runtime. When you are unsure of where a director is going to take you in the narrative, it does wonderful things for the characters you happen to be watching.

It’s not that Transsiberian is outrageously original as a thriller – you can almost imagine it as Dead Calm on a snowy train – but it is just that you can get easily invested in due to the strength of the cast and its direction. Woody Harrelson enjoys himself as the unassuming straight guy. His is a character written to appear somewhat bland, which allows Harrelson to have a bit of fun playing dumb. Elsewhere, Eduardo Noriega embraces his sleazy role with relish. A key moment lies when he is asked about the whereabouts of a character. His answer is vague enough to be both uncaring or merely a bad translation. It’s sly enough to be both. But the film really belongs to the two female performances. Mara’s quiet performance is one that conveys much more through her eyes than her dialogue. To skim the performance is to believe it’s thankless. Mortimer’s display is amongst my favourite of hers. It’s a performance that so much of the film lies on. Hiding a secret past leaked out in conversation from other characters, Jessie looks like she’s carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders before she gets embroiled with the antics of Carlos and Abbie.

Man waiting for a train

As the film begins to turn its screws, Mortimer’s performance becomes more and more revealing, even though it hinges on more secrets being hidden. In this second watch, I realised just how deep down the rabbit’s hole it takes Jessie. Leaving her Christian missionary project at the beginning, the film visually depicts how far she’s about to fall, finding her taking pictures of a dilapidated church in the middle of nowhere. A metaphor for lost faith? By the time certain events take hold, one could think that.

Clearly a calling card for its filmmaker, Anderson highlights his skills here. Transsiberian is a film of paranoia and deception, Anderson confines his characters at any chance he gets, restricting them to suffocating close-ups tightly framed against other members when they talk on the train, contrasting them with wider establishing shots of the isolating snowy wilderness. The unfamiliar faces on the train morph from friendly to threatening from scene to scene. The sense of something inescapable never leaves the film. At one point, two characters embrace each other after a separation, which should feel like a break in tension and yet the tight frame ensures we keep an eye on an incriminating item. It is a small yet telling detail that crops up amongst a set of others. It is within these small aspects that the film pays dividends. The story may veer into the familiar, but Anderson, with his ensemble cast, impresses nevertheless. The reaction shots alone keep the tension high until the final frames.

Anderson’s films since Transsiberian haven’t had the acclaim he achieved with Session 9 and The Machinist (2004) before it. He’s now found more directing TV, with credits on shows such as The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and Fringe. This isn’t surprisingly considering the shows he’s been on. But films like Transsiberian are worth highlighting because you don’t want them or their filmmakers to fall down the cracks. However, while I hope Anderson can get himself on a similar run of form – if he finds himself back on long-form features – it’s always worth revisiting gems such as this and hollering about them from the rooftops.

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