In select cities, a little indie thriller titled Transsiberian quietly opened over the weekend and did fairly well in the indie market (despite the long shadow cast by The Dark Knight's opening), which frankly surprises me. With some folks calling the movie "Hitchcockian" in its suspense, and featuring a cast that includes the enigmatic Emily Mortimer and a shape-shifting Ben Kingsley, I was interested in seeing it myself. But now I kinda wish I hadn't.
Emily Mortimer and Woody Harrelson play Americans Roy and Jesse, who are taking a train through Russia after completing a missionary assignment teaching English in China. Roy is your typical all-American tourist, boisterous, over-eager and naive, while Jesse has worked hard to get over her bad girl past, in which she struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. They meet another young couple, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara), who turn out to have some shady secrets of their own, and Carlos manages to rope Jesse into a dangerous world of drug trafficking. Enter the two-faced Russian cop Grinko (Ben Kingsley) who has interests in Carlos's activities extending beyond official police work. When Carlos goes missing and Jesse was the last to see him, Grinko focuses all his energies on the American couple, and the movie kinda derails from there. To see what I mean, read more.
In terms of setting up a chilling, unfamiliar atmosphere in which terrible things could happen, director Brad Anderson succeeds on all counts. The snow white light of middle-of-nowhere Russia casts everything in a filmy gray, and the bulk of the story takes place on a speeding train, evoking a panicky feeling of being trapped in an foreign country in close quarters with untrustworthy people. Certainly, there are moments of genuine suspense, and the setting is such that this could have been a real nail-biter. But then someone talks, or does something incredibly dumb, and it's all over.
The most debilitating aspect of Transsiberian is the set of characters. At every turn Jesse does something (or doesn't do something — how hard is it to discreetly drop a bag in a trash bin in a public space where nobody is paying attention to you? Come on!) that is so inane, so illogical, there's no response but to throw your hands up in the air and curse under your breath. Indeed, this is the kind of film that was fun to watch with a few friends — but only because we could yell at the screen together out of bafflement and frustration. Though she admirably puts her all into it, even Mortimer can't elevate the quality of this character.
And then there's Woody Harrelson, who brings the stock character of dumb American buffoon to preposterous levels. He could have easily taken the blithe ignorance down a notch and we would have still gotten the picture. As it was, his character was so incredibly stupid at times, I wondered if there were something wrong with him, mentally. In the end, you can have a spooky setting, but characters really matter, too, and if we don't root for, care about or even remotely like any of them, it's hard to find the film worthwhile.