Strangers on a Russian train
“Transsiberian” is the quintessence of what critic Judith Crist affectionately refers to as a movie-movie: a picture that breathes entertainment through every celluloid sprocket hole while seeming, without affect or pomposity, to encapsulate the entirety of film history.
A queasy-making train thriller directed with vibrant visual panache by Brad Anderson, “Transsiberian” stars Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer as Roy and Jessie, a married couple who regrettably opt for the picturesque route back home after two weeks of Christian fellowship work in China.
Their Beijing-to-Moscow excursion train turns up a hotbed of ill omens, from a fish-eyed European passenger who warns them of torture-happy Russian police to a testy conductor who suffers a meltdown at the sound of klutzy Berlitz Russian. The fulfillment of these bad premonitions arrives in the form of a seductive Spanish traveler named Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and his owl-eyed American girlfriend, Abby (Kate Mara), who take up occupancy in Roy and Jessie’s stateroom.
The new roommates are shrouded in question marks: What have they been doing on the road for the last two years and why is Carlos being such a twit about that knapsack of Russian dolls? As the couples bond and share confidences, Jessie’s own clouded past is thrown into relief. When a series of events throw her into harm’s way with the roving Carlos, Jessie’s good-girl facade crumbles away to reveal a coiled tiger lurking beneath.
Director and co-screenwriter Anderson (“The Machinist,” “Session 9") reasserts his facility for the surreal atmospheric touch, epitomized by the witty interpolation of such fluffy jukebox ditties as “Windy” and “Up, Up and Away.” Making good use of the Spanish-financed production company, Anderson elicits fine work from Barcelona cinematographer Xavi Gimenez and editor Jaume Marti. Gimenez deftly deploys a hand-held camera to maximize the fishbowl tension of characters ensnared in tight spaces (that’s Lithuania standing in for a snowbound Siberian landscape).
Mortimer gives a terrifically keyed-up performance that is nicely complemented by the wholesomely chipper Harrelson, who seems to be drawing inspiration from Fred MacMurray’s gallery of Disney dads. This summer’s indie-flick Cheshire cat, Ben Kingsley, turns up yet again, brandishing an ambiguous smile and a threatening Russian accent in the role of the film’s chief resident nogoodnik.
“Transsiberian.” MPAA rating: R for some violence, including torture and language. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. In general release.