A filmmaker can do a lot with two people on a train, especially if they’re a husband and wife still working out their relationship. The cramped quarters, the parade of strangers, the disorientation of a new environment all provide rich soil for character development and conflict. So it is with Transsiberian, a movie about Jessie and Roy (played by Emily Mortimer and Woody Harrelson) riding a train from Beijing to Moscow.
The two are relatively happy, but differences lurk over whether to start a family and how to deal with their respective histories (Jessie has led a much more colorful life). Things get more complicated when Carlos and Abby, a mysterious young couple, join them in their sleeping car. Carlos takes a liking to Jessie, while Jessie is trying to figure out what’s going on with Abby. Roy and Jessie soon get separated (is Carlos responsible?), leaving Jessie in a tenuous position.
Director Bran Anderson knows how to manipulate the audience. Hints abound that Carlos might be up to something bad. Drug smuggling? Maybe. Human trafficking? Possibly. But he also could just be a suave Lothario. No matter what, we know that Jessie shouldn’t go on that "innocent" walk with him when they get off the train, and soon she’s in a lot more trouble than she could have ever imagined.
But just when the movie should focus on characters and relationships, it takes a right turn into plot. And an ugly, barbaric plot it is, which is surprising. If you’re making a movie that stars Ben Kingsley (as a narcotics investigator) and features exotic railway travel and interesting characters, the likely target audience will be middle-aged arthouse fans. Last I checked, that demographic isn’t so big on brutal mutilation and punishing violence.
This shift in tone is particularly regrettable because Harrelson gives a wonderfully subtle performance as an earthy, religious husband. I’m not usually a fan of Harrelson’s wide-eyed approach, but here he creates a likable and genuinely interesting character. Roy wants to connect with his wife despite their contrasting pasts, and he’s willing to look like a fool and take some chances to make it happen. Kingsley doesn’t have much to do besides practice a different accent (Russian this time), while Mortimer is a nicely down-to-earth actress who’s a bit outmatched in the movie’s more intense scenes. Unfortunately, there are a lot of those.