Off the Beaten Track (Film Review: “Transsiberian”)

When an American couple befriends two strangers on a train traveling through Russia’s Siberian wilderness, they have no idea what mayhem lies in their path.

SnapShot Plot

Transsiberian is an edge-of-your-seat thriller starring Woody Harrelson, Ben Kingsley, Kate Mara and Emily Mortimer, including an unnerving performance by Spanish actor, Eduardo Noriega. The plot centers on an American couple returning home after volunteering at a Christian mission in China, who opt to take a 6-day train trip through the Siberian hinterland, ending in Moscow for a few days of site seeing. Played by Harrelson and (British actress) Mortimer, they are Roy and Jessie. Invoking his very early days on the NBC sitcom, Cheers, Harrelson imbues Roy with the kind of all-American gosh-dang-it naivete that, charming at first, can become a bit tiresome, even grating and it shows in the face of his wife. Jessie’s seen a lot more of the real world than has her husband. It’s clear she has a past, and that in meeting Roy, Jessie found her salvation in life. But her cynicism still shows through, exhibited in small ways such as the bored, dismissive way she chain smokes, to the consternation of Roy. When a seemingly exotic couple named Abby and Carlos (played by Mara and Noriega) move into their cabin, a sexual tension begins to build between Jessie and Carlos, which she resists. As the train makes its inexorable way into the remote and wintry landscape of Siberia, so too a sense of dread made all the more palpable by its claustrophobic confines and the strange and menacing-looking ‘foreigners’ speaking in languages utterly unknown to both couples.

After a mix-up at one of the stations, Jessie finds herself embroiled in a dangerous confrontation with Carlos, after which there is no going back to her previous life. Two new Russian passengers have now boarded the train, a senior narcotics detective (played with predictably menacing charm by Ben Kingsley) and his younger, thuggish partner. It soon becomes apparent that Jessie will be implicated in a drug smuggling operation she knew nothing about, as well as something so much darker about which she’s lying to everyone. It’s just a matter of time before the truth will be revealed, but what will be the consequences of her deceit upon herself and the others?

Parting Shot

Directed by Brad Anderson (Beirut; The Call; Next Stop Wonderland; TV series Fringe) the movie lands solidly as an effective nail-biter, with a central performance by Emily Mortimer that is at once heartbreaking and unnerving. Her guilt, anxiety and fear are written all over her face, to the extent that dialogue seems extraneous. And yet, although she can be seen as an unwitting co-conspirator in the drama that unfolds from the actions of Abby and Carlos, Jessie is nonetheless dictated by the character flaws of her past. And beyond the thriller elements of the film, what captured my attention was the very real fear at the core of the ‘stranger in a strange land’ trope. As well the moral unraveling of an identity which for so long has been so closely guarded, which speaks volumes about the ethical choices she makes. Much like the Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls at the heart of the story, Jessie’s lies – albeit fueled by abject fear – are peeled away, layer by layer to finally reveal the truth. . . or at least a truth she can live with.

Transsiberian is presently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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