September 14, 2008

REVIEW: Transsiberian (A-)

Transsiberian first caught my eye late in the spring when I was perusing the summer releases, and I quietly looked forward to it as a possible late summer sleeper. I've never been to Siberia or China or Russia, but something about the brief synopsis sounded creepy enough to get my attention. A cast that includes Ben Kingsley (Elegy, The Wackness), Woody Harrelson (Semi-Pro, No Country for Old Men) and Emily Mortimer (Redbelt, Lars and the Real Girl) piqued my interest even more.

So Transsiberian finally arrived at the "station", and I embarked on a completely engaging, even if not altogether enjoyable, ride through the bleak Siberian tundra. Writer/Director Brad Anderson's (Next Stop Wonderland, Session 9) dark thriller is the child of Strangers on a Train and A Simple Plan, and although it doesn't quite inherit all of the best traits of its genius parents, it's still a suspenseful story of deceit and faithfulness in one of the world's most desolate places.

In the marriage of Roy (Harrelson) and Jessie (Mortimer), Anderson has created a somewhat unbelievable pairing: the dopey, naive Christian volunteer and the woman with a rebellious past. Their counterpart couple, the strangers they befriend on their trip from Beijing to Moscow, is a more realistic duo, despite the mysteries behind their suspicious actions. Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) is a handsome Spaniard who ogles Jessie while taking shots of Russian vodka with Roy. His girlfriend, Abby (Kate Mara), is an American drifter who doesn't say much and doesn't seem entirely comfortable with Carlos. Each of these characters has identifiable markers so you know what they're really like: Roy has the nerdy glasses, Jessie has the constantly anxious expression on her face, Carlos has the tribal tattoos and Abby has the eye shadow applied so heavily that she looks like a raccoon. These markers are one of the few small things that Brad Anderson could have done away with in order to make the eventual actions of each character a little more surprising, but I guess if you don't notice then you won't be bothered anyway.

The only character I have yet to mention, and the one who eventually threatens to derail not just the train but the actual movie, is Grinko (Kingsley), a Russian narcotics detective who, almost too conveniently for the story, joins the party halfway to Moscow. Kingsley has little work to do in Transsiberian (his third movie of the last two months) but he delivers as usual, and his fairly good Russian accent goes a long way in making up for the utter failure of Mortimer's American accent. As memorable as Kingsley's character is, however, it's Woody Harrelson who almost steals the movie with his over-the-top performance as Roy.

It seems I've only mentioned the minor flaws that prevent Transsiberian from achieving excellence, but all things considered it's a thrilling success that deserves a lot more of an audience than it's likely to get. Brad Anderson continues to impress critics, but none of the films he has either written or directed, going back to Next Stop Wonderland a decade ago, has caught on with the general moviegoing public, who, if they knew what was good for them, would rush out to see Transsiberian instead of commercial thrillers like this week's upcoming Lakeview Terrace.

Writing - 9
Acting - 10
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Social Significance - 3

Total: 46/50= 92% = A-


  1. Dan I am glad you liked this, although sadly I did not. However, I did appreciate the stunning cinematography and the performances, especially Kingley's. (He had been disasppointing in other films as of late). I found much of the narrative convoluting, but I can see why one could consider this a riveting and/or numbing experience. You did a great job breaking this down in categories, and you again penned an engaging piece of film criticism.

  2. I'm trying to reconcile your review with your rating. Is this an example of a movie that works in spite of many of its flaws?

  3. I'm officially in the fanclub for The Machinist, so I'm willing to take a ride on this one. I echo Craig's question, however; your review seems a little further down the scale than your rating (A-!).

    However, let me say that I think your new, less structured review format is a big plus.

  4. Thanks, Sam. I'm at least glad to know what someone else thinks, as there are only a few people who I know who have seen it. It's not without its problems, and you're exactly right, Craig, I probably enjoyed it more than I should have.

    Thanks, Evan. I appreciate that thought in relation to some other conversations we've had. This will be the style going forward, though I might throw in a 300 Words or "breakdown" review every now and then just to keep things fresh. I still need to read Luke's review of this, and Alexander's. It seems the critical praise is pretty high for this movie - higher than I would expect - so I wonder where it will go from here...

  5. Good review, Daniel. Though like others the rating seems high considering the review.

    My review isn't so kind, but there are elements to this film that I did enjoy. As Sam said over at CCC, though, I found it more or less disposable.

  6. I'm glad to see this one getting some attention, but I'm surprised at how little it has stuck with me as I get farther and farther away from having seen it.

    Kingsley is indeed excellent, and the movie is one of the better thrillers of the year, along with TELL NO ONE. I think it could have done moderately well if given the right marketing push, I see no reason to keep it exclusively on the art house circuit other than the fact that it's actually good.

    I like the fact that it doesn't take the direction I expected it to. I very solid, if flawed, effort all the way around.

  7. Uh oh, well I need to read your thoughts, still, Alexander, but I hope my initial recommendation a few weeks ago wasn't met with regret!

    Matthew, I have a number of reviews to catch up on and didn't realize you had seen this one as well. I agree that both this and Tell No One could do real business if given a shot.

    Thinking about this comments, I find it ironically funny that in my first review outside of the original format, I'm already faced with the reason that I did it in the first place (and explained in one of my first ever posts): an inability to justify a grade! As it turns out in this case, I just liked a lot more of it than I didn't like, and the major elements, as outlined in the rating, added up to make it deserving of a higher than expected grade.

  8. As you may know, I disliked this film, and I think my review is probably kinder (more diplomatic?) than my initial impulse. However, your review is a good read and it made me rethink (but not change!) my own opinion.

  9. I actually had to step over both your review of this and Boy A until I wrote my own, Kathie, so I haven't yet. Too bad...looks like I'm more on my own with this one than I realized. I admit my high expectations might have been somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I really think this was at least more original than half of what we're getting these days. I'll leave more thoughts when I read yours...


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