Thursday, December 04, 2008


Cast: Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Sir Ben Kingsley, Eduardo Noriega, Kate Mara
Director: Brad Anderson
Runtime: 111 min.
Rating: ****
Genre: Thriller, Crime, Drama

        Transsiberian has everything I seek from a Hitchcock film. There’re thrills, there’re chills, there’re moral dilemmas, there’s cynicism (well almost), the resultant faults and the easy smooth resolution (notwithstanding Vertigo and The Birds) where everything falls neatly into place. And there’re those manipulative trappings the unsuspecting audience walks right into, a sharp turn just when it eases smugly into its seat assuming that the road from now on is as straight as an arrow. That it ends like it does might be perceived with a sense of disappointment, for it merely ends up being a well-made genre product when it could have been so much more. Why do I say so much more? That is because it has some terrifically written characters, and it is their relations which sucks us right into its web.
        Now, if there’s a title that explains the lure of its entire premise without revealing much, it is this. The very word conjures up imaginations of a long train journey which as might well have been called an odyssey, set amidst the snow-filled landscape of Russia. From Vladivostok in the far east to Moscow. Even as much as a ray of sun might shatter the image. Snow, everywhere. Gulags spring up. Transsiberian seems to have been written into existence with those very pictures in mind, with an idea of the adventure such a journey might present. A gun and a girl can make a fine film, sure, but by no means are they the only two items which ensure a thriller. There’re others, and a moving train, or a moving plane, or a moving bus are some of them. I seem to prefer the train, for the opportunities it presents, both internal and external. A plane is always in air, a bus on the road, and the ship in water. The train though offers the prospect of stoppages at stations, often obscure ones, where the boarding of a suspicious stranger looms large. It is a lonely little place at the night to do away with a crime, has room for a romantic fling and presents a decent range of geography to dodge the bad guy while limiting your maneuverability at the same time. And all this while, the scenery outside is changing, from mountains, to snow capped mountains to ravines. And I have not even started with what all can be done with a train in the name of action and suspense, and making it all kinda believable. Never mind, because I know you already have a general sense of things.
        It is such a journey Roy (Harrelson) and Jessie (Mortimer, Elizabeth) walk into. Roy is a simple man, and as unpretentious as they come. He owns a store, belongs to a church, and has a train model in his basement. He loves the big coal burners, and he loves people, and he has a big truthful heart. You would expect such a man to adore his wife and you would be right. And between them, Jessie is the wild one. She carries a Canon Rebel Digital, yet she takes pictures that look like 35 mm. She takes pictures of everything, of people, of moods, of locales. She seems to be the kind of person who would have one hell of a past, and is in love with Roy only because she chooses to, and not because it happened by chance. She is beautiful, too. If her husband misses the train, and she gets on it, and she meets a stunner of a guy, she feels like the kind of person who wouldn’t dismiss thoughts of a pointless one-night stand outright, but would first give it a thought and then kick it firmly out of the window. Or would she? I don’t know, but I wonder that if you have a dark past would that mean you are now a person of strong will? Or does it mean you are essentially weak, for if you’re strong you wouldn’t have fallen in trouble in the first place. Then, does that mean you’re more susceptible to fall prey? For some reason, I seem to be reminded of Christina (Naomi Watts) from 21 Grams.
        Now, they board the Transsiberian rail, even though the church that is paying for their trip does offer the option of the air route. Who chooses, and why is for you to discover. And don’t tell me it was the director who thought there are just too many thrillers on planes nowadays. Just as they cross the border from China into Russia they meet their cabin mates, a young couple. But then, who else who would it be? The guy, Carlos (Noriega, Abre Los Ojos) hails from Spain and is an absolute knockout. But then, what else would he be? The young woman Abby (Kate, Brokeback Mountain) looks suspicious because she looks around suspiciously, but then, how else would she look?
        Oh, there’s the matter of some stolen money from the house of a drug dealer. Detective Grinko (Kingsley) is on the heels of the matter. His investigation leads him to board the train at some point, too, but then, where else would it lead to?
        These are genre foundations upon which Anderson builds his picture, and misleads you to believe everything will pan out exactly like the way you think. And even if there’s a chance you might know the destination, you wouldn’t know what the journey had in store for you. Transsiberian has the trappings of a good old fashioned train thriller, complete with the detached impersonal approach we apply. But the stakes seem to be higher here, and we feel scared for Roy and Jessie. Whatever she does elicits the desired reaction. I believe that is because of the grit that Anderson lends to his frames. You might have seen these thrills from a time long gone, often in black and white (The Lady Vanishes). Watching them in color, now, and outside of a standard Hollywood Die Hard style actioner, it feels surprisingly real and often unsettling. You might argue Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express was in color, and I would argue that there’re so many characters in the film that it is impossible to attach with any single one. And the color is so bright it almost reins in the dreamy quality of black and white. Anderson has a way with atmosphere, and he possesses this ability of making us feel the film’s surroundings. In The Machinist, there was a genuine sense of seediness around. And it was not just because of how he framed his film, or the way he colored it, but because of the way he chose his locations. Here, we feel the cold. At 2 in the night, and the middle of the film, I felt the need to cover myself around with my bed sheet. I was appalled at how Moore wasted everything there was in Max Payne. Anderson seems like a person who might have more than a word of advice for him.
        Of course, the film derives its effectiveness from its performances. There’re erotic undertones the film possesses, and the credit ought to stand with Mortimer. Most films would insert the obligatory sex scene, without knowing how they work or why they should work. Anderson knows, and so does Mortimer, and they don’t need that obligation. You could have it all full-dressed too. Ebert pins it down so efficiently in his review of Bunuel’s Belle De Jour
                                For a woman like Severine, walking into a room to have sex, the erotic charge comes not from who is waiting in the room, but from the fact that she is walking into it. Sex is about herself. Love of course is another matter.
Source: Roger Ebert’s review of Belle De Jour (1967) here.
        And if that wasn’t enough, Anderson raises the stakes with respect to the taboo, as he creates a generic contrast with her husband who seems like the most noble of Samaritans. It is interesting to see Harrelson in such a role, and he brings a most natural exuberance to himself. Anderson understands that his film hinges mainly on how we feel about the couple, and if he wins there, he could pull any string, any coincidence and we would still care no matter how far fetched it is. And he wins. Well, almost. A cynical part of me does believe there ought to have been a different and messy resolution, more so after all the manipulations I have been through. But there’s a different part of me that is satisfied, and is not too concerned with my minor disappointment.

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