Brad Anderson's contribution to the claustrophobic tradition of trapped-on-a-train thrillers strands an American couple in cramped quarters seething with dark temptations and lurking danger.
Fresh from doing church-sponsored humanitarian work in China, married midwesterners Jessie and Roy (Emily Mortimer, Woody Harrelson) board the Transsiberian Express for the first leg of their trip home. Sure, it would be faster to fly, but Roy is a train buff, Jessie likes a little adventure and their trying to work through a little marital discord, so a six-day jaunt through some icily spectacularly scenery suits them both. They've barely settled in when they meet their cabin mates, dangerously handsome Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and his much-younger girlfriend, Abby (Kate Mara), who's spent the last two years putting as much physical and psychological distance as possible between herself and her unhappy childhood in the Pacific Northwest. Roy is a small town optimist to the core, quick to assume the good in people and slow to see the bad, but former wild-child Jessie immediately picks up disturbing vibes: Maybe she just recognizes comrades in the bad habits she struggles daily to keep behind her, or maybe it's something worse. Given that the film opens with a dyspeptic Russian narcotics agent (Ben Kingsley) calming examining a frozen corpse with a knife buried at the base of its neck, it comes as no great surprise that Carlos and Abby are mixed up in some very bad things or that Roy and Jessie get drawn into them as well. The surprises are in the whats, hows, whys and with whoms, and Anderson and co-writer Will Conroy keep them coming until the end.
Anderson's SESSION 9 (2001) and THE MACHINIST (2004) play with the conventions of horror and suspense films, but TRANSSIBERIAN is a flat-out exercise in generic thrills that's as smoothly accomplished as, say Alfred Hitchcock's seminal THE LADY VANISHES (1938). The subtext is shopworn: Don't talk to shady strangers, especially in foreign countries. But the execution is masterful and even as you see the building blocks of the climax being put into place, it's a delight to watch them fit just so.
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