Anti-noir in rails and snow

Spain, 2008
Directed By: Brad Anderson
Written By: Brad Anderson, Will Conroy
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega
Running Time: 111 min.
Rated R for some violence, including torture and language
3 out of 5 stars
It turns out Ben Kingsley still can make a good movie—consider me pleasantly surprised. After his embarrassing turn in The Love Guru and the disappointing The Wackness (not to mention Elegy, which I haven’t yet seen but have heard mixed things about), I was starting to lose faith in the ol’ guy. Then I saw the surprisingly entertaining thriller Transsiberian (a coproduction of Spain, the U.K., Lithuania, Germany and China), and my faith was restored. Don’t let me oversell it—Transsiberian is far from being a great film, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but it was a nice little surprise.

Transsiberian is a somewhat typical thriller that takes place on the Transsiberian Railway (which runs between China and Moscow), playing out about like a mash-up of Murder on the Orient Express, Detour and Fargo. The latter is present right down to the Middle American stereotype played by Woody Harrelson (Natural Born Killers, No Country for Old Men)—the accent’s not as exaggerated, but the rest of it is there: he’s protestant, white, middle class, and generally dorky and clueless (essentially a live-action Ned Flanders). The film kicks off when he and his former “bad girl” wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer, Lars and the Real Girl) finish a short-term mission trip to Beijing and decide to ride the rails across Asia. Here they make the acquaintance of a mysterious Spaniard named Carlos (Eduardo Noriega, Vantage Point) and his American girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara, Brokeback Mountain)—who may or may not be all that they seem.

Of course we are talking about a thriller here, so I can’t say much more without “spoiling” it, but expect the requisite twists and turns. Visually, this is the same sort of anti-noir that the Coen brothers and Christopher Nolan pioneered with Fargo and Insomnia, respectively: astonishing aerial and tracking shots where the screen is filled with white, not black: miles and miles of barren, snowy wasteland, driving home the isolation of the characters (particularly those who “have somebody”). Paired with a mournful string soundtrack, it makes Transsiberian a somber affair, even in its most shocking and humorous moments.

Thematically, it could best be described as post-feminist neo-noir, with Jessie playing the tragic hero, here led astray by the combined forces of fate and the “homme fatale” Carlos. Her sexual and romantic frustrations make for a tense first act—one which concludes with one of the most shocking, devastating acts of violence I’ve seen on screen in a long time. (And which should please—or possibly offend—film snobs by inverting some key iconography from Béla Tarr’s Satantango.)

And then, sadly, it all falls apart.

Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) has chosen an unfortunate two-act structure for this film, with this violent moment acting as the bridge between them. It’s not necessarily a bad idea, but in practice, it makes for a first act that’s impossible to follow up. Anderson has elected to make some subversive, Hitchcock-style decisions in whom to kill off, and while Hitch could probably have pulled it off, for Anderson it merely deflates the tension. While the first half of the film chugs along, powered by sexual sparks, back-stabbing and general suspense, the second half derails (literally) and becomes a mess of drug politics, graphic torture, and gee-whiz action sequences, all of which attempt to top the earlier crimes of desperation, and none of which do. (And unfortunately for him and his highly rehearsed Russian accent, this is when Kingsely shows up.) It’s not hard to tell where it’s going, and it makes no twists or turns in getting there.

This is all frustrating, since the first half promises a masterpiece of neo-noir; sadly it was not to be. Still, the film is arguably worth seeing for the first half alone—not to mention Mortimer’s excellent performance as the girl who can’t escape her past and Kingsley’s very good work as the crooked cop. With another rewrite or two, Transsiberian could have been a serious contender; as it is, it’s just another foreign film with some vaguely offensive stereotypes of Midwesterners. The choice is yours.

About the author:
A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Luke Harrington currently resides in Tulsa and works in the aerospace industry–but, at any given moment, would probably rather be reviewing movies.  In his spare time, he’s off playing blues piano and pretending to be Assistant Editor for