It's easy to imagine the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock smiling down -- with a wicked glint in his spectral eye -- at the indie thriller Transsiberian.
An adroit mix of character study and paranoia film, Transsiberian takes place largely on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Its route spans much of Asia and includes some of the former Soviet Union's most remote and hostile corners. Hitchcock delighted in trains as cinematic vehicles, from the first scene of Strangers on a Train to the thrilling climax of Shadow of a Doubt.
The legendary English filmmaker also frequently preyed on fears of police officers and unjust accusations, particularly in The Wrong Man. Transsiberian combines such phobias with the lingering mystique of Russian secret police as all-purpose bogeymen. While the Cold War ended nearly 20 years ago, the prospect of Russian policemen or guards crisply asking "Will you come with us, please?" can still make anyone's throat go dry.
Transsiberian follows a married couple who initially comes across as a typical pair of American innocents abroad. Jessie (Emily Mortimer) and Roy (Woody Harrelson) complete a stint of Church-based volunteerism in China, and then take the railway as an "adventure." Roy turns out to be a choo-choo hobbyist who hopes that a little exciting tourism will help Jessie settle down into their Midwestern marriage.
We gradually learn that Jessie's a recovering alcoholic with a checkered past, and she seems to find vicarious excitement through the young strangers who share their sleeping berth. Carlos and Abby (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara) talk about restlessly kicking around the world, and show off their well-worn passports while proving surprisingly knowledgeable about international smuggling. They also cross paths with a crafty narcotics officer (Ben Kingsley, underplaying nicely), who seems to know more than he's letting on.
Revealing any more would spoil Transsiberian's twists, and part of the film's suspenseful pleasures is the way it seldom stays on predictable tracks. False alarms ratchet up the tension until the couple faces some extremely harrowing threats, but director Brad Anderson proves just as concerned with Jessie's internal conflicts. She wrestles with disenchantment with Roy and an obvious attraction to Carlos, despite the risks of lapsing into her old, self-destructive habits – to say nothing of breaking rules in a foreign country. Mortimer offers a rich portrayal of a taciturn role, making us squirm in empathy when Jessie enters nerve-wracking situations, while also trying to puzzle out the contradictions in her personality.
Anderson presents Transsiberian in a more jittery, almost pseudo-documentary style compared with the smooth, fluid shots of Hitchcock's classics. As you'd expect from a veteran director of HBO's "The Wire," he crowds the frame with pungent details about post-Soviet life. The locations, extras and even the lighting all look completely natural, and the tension builds because everything looks entirely real. When some of the characters are separated and have to stay at a middle-of-nowhere hotel, it's exactly the kind of dismal, tacky inn you never see in Hollywood thrillers, even though the production crews probably stay in ones exactly like it.
The Russian tourism board would probably dislike the film's emphasis on the country's violent image and history. An impromptu, vodka-fueled party in the dining car turns into a comparison of scars (similar to the one in Jaws), until an old man pulls back his sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a gulag. He "wins." As Roy says, "It's like the Wild East out here."
Transsiberian could be the perfect movie for audiences who find the Hostel films too low-brow, and The Darjeeling Limited too twee. Admittedly, the film's last act embraces some of the Hollywood action clichés it had successfully avoided. Like Hitchcock films, however, Transsiberian can engage the audience's intellect even while it sets pulses racing.