Ben Kingsley, Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer & Thomas Kretschmann take a walk in the Siberian woods
Woody Harrelson is not the world’s most versatile actor. He has a fairly narrow range, but within it, he can be quite decent. In the hands of the right director, he can be brilliant, as he was when Milos Forman cast him in the title role of The People vs. Larry Flynt. He’s not brilliant as Roy, the Midwestern hardware store owner & evangelical minister, in Transsiberian, but he doesn’t need to be since, even tho he has top billing, it’s ultimately not a film about his character, but rather about Jessie, his wife, played by Emily Mortimer (Match Point, Lars and the Real Girl, Lovely & Amazing). She is tremendous as the chica mala, the one-time runaway turned addict & alcoholic who is rescued by this super square minister, offered a decent life, stopped drinking and finds herself now in Beijing, have helped a community gain electricity for the first time. A serious, but amateur, photographer, she’s documented the entire project. Now, instead of flying back to the United States, Roy has talked her in going back the long way, by train to Moscow on the Transsiberian Express. A train nut – he has the requisite miniature set in his basement back home – Roy wants not just to take this lengthiest of train rides, but to see a train that actually has to change gauge when it crosses the border from China into Russia. He also thinks that this will help to feed his new wife’s wanderlust & desire for adventure. The couple isn’t quite communicating as openly as they should, as an early scene regarding the use of condoms makes clear, and he’s hoping that this will give their relationship a new dimension.
Along the way, they meet a pair of backpackers, Carlos & Abby, fresh from teaching ESL in Japan, or so they say. Inveterate travelers, Carlos & Abby have been everywhere & know all the nuances of negotiating not just the train, but the police & customs, never a simple thing even in post-Soviet Russia, the markets & the curious train apparatchiks who rule with an iron fist but fail to fix toilets. Jessie likes Abby, who reminds her perhaps too much of her younger self, a kid fleeing unstated sexual abuse at home, but she really connects with Carlos, a natural risk taker from Spain who instantly recognizes the chica mala or bad girl in Jessie’s past. When only Carlos returns from a short stopover in Irkutsk, the Siberian city on the banks of Lake Baikal, where he’d tagged along with Roy as the preacher photographed decommissioned antique locomotives, Jessie gets frantic. She gets off at what must be the next stop and waits in the small town’s hotel, hoping that Roy will be on the next train a day later. Carlos & Abby decide to detrain & wait with her. Things happen that I won’t recount here. Suffice it to say that when Roy does show up & Jessie joins him on a later train, Carlos & Abby don’t get back on & Jessie soon finds herself surrounded by Russian cops asking very uncomfortable questions. From here things turn into one of the more tense thrillers I’ve seen on screen in awhile, including a train crash & some graphic & bloody torture. It helps that the principle detective here, Inspector Grinko of the Russian equivalent of the DEA, is played impeccably by Ben Kingsley. But the second hour of this two-hour film is thoroughly harrowing, almost entirely focused on Jessie.
Ultimately Transsiberian is about what we know about others, and what we let others know about ourselves. We don’t know all the secrets that drive Jessie, and it’s never clear that anyone in the film understands fully just who Carlos & Abby are & of what they might be capable. No one, not even the police, are quite what they seem. This is true even for Roy, whose knowledge of hardware stores & love of “choo choo trains” proves to be a lifesaver, and whose love of Jessie is unconditional enough to accept any secrets she might harbor. It’s Jessie who has the much harder time sorting through this web. Roy might accept her unconditionally, but she sure doesn’t. Yet she is willing to trust Abby, which leads to a final scene that underscores the complexities of the entire film.
Making Jessie a photographer & giving her a past more hinted at than described, clearly are intended to make us identify with her perspective throughout the film. She is still trying to sort out her past & this improbable marriage. And she’s the one who has to make sense of everything else that is going on, just in order to stay alive. Mortimer is continually asked to express two or three emotions almost simultaneously & does so with the most subtle pallet of expressions one might imagine, especially played off against the much broader acting style of Harrelson. Somehow it works, Mortimer makes it work, even when the screen play or Brad Anderson’s direction seem less than perfect.
The film is hardly flawless – there is no way, literally, that final scene can occur without a whole bunch o’ narrative explaining why Abby wasn’t shipped back to the U.S. the instant she could stand (or why the wolves hadn’t feasted & scattered the booty), the disappearance of most of the train is never quite explained, or why, if the bad guys have a camp sufficiently set up to include helicopters, they don’t send more folks out to capture our protagonists. Giving the lead characters the names of Roy & Jessie is too precious. And if you’re going to make your protagonists serious Christians, shouldn’t Christianity actually drive their behavior? Transsiberian isn’t a film that can stand up to too much of this sort of probing. But it’s an effective neo-Hitchcockian diversion, the scenery is fabulous (train buffs probably will be blown away by the details), and the film gives a very real
sense of what it feels like to deal with daily life in Russia. Still, the best reason to see this film is to watch Emily Mortimer give a master class in what a three-dimensional acting performance can be. She’s completely believable and sympathetic, even when you’re appalled at her actions & what she’s willing to let happen to keep a secret. This is a small film that is going to play at art houses or in larger cineplexes that no longer need to devote 17 screens to The Dark Knight. It’ll go to DVD & that will be that, which is too bad. Emily Mortimer gives a performance better than many that win Oscars, but I don’t know how many folks who will get to see it.