A nasty little noir that would bring a smile to Alfred Hitchcock's face, director Brad Anderson's Transsiberian is the sort of lean, mean thriller that Hollywood routinely bobbles, injecting far too much narrative, sex or gunplay into in an effort to jazz up the film. Sometimes, a simple, unrelenting story is enough and in Transsiberian's case, you'll marvel at Anderson and co-screenwriter Will Conroy's economical approach to spinning this exotic tale out of control.
Americans Roy and Jessie (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer, respectively) are returning home, via train from Bejing to Moscow, from a successful mission trip to China. Train aficionado Roy is delighted to be aboard the Trans-siberian express rattling across the frozen tundra, while the tight-lipped Jessie is slightly less so.
There are hints of marital discord early on, an element only further antagonized by the arrival of the mysterious Carlos and Abby (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara), a pair that Jessie almost instantly distrusts. Without diving too deeply into spoilers, the four travelers become enmeshed in a web of lies, deceit and crime, as Roy goes missing, Carlos reveals his true self and a Russian detective, Ilya Grinko (Ben Kingsley), arrives on board to sort out precisely what's going on.
Transsiberian takes a while to get going -- the early scene-setting, while evocative and flavorful, can drag a bit -- but once it does, Anderson rarely lets up, pushing his beautifully filmed thriller (by Xavi Gimenez) forward with relentless speed. As the missteps stack up and the consequences become bloody, Anderson keeps the story (pun semi-intended) on the rails, never stooping to expedient plot holes or tossing everything out the window in order to tie up loose ends -- what a novel idea.
Perhaps what's most welcome about Transsiberian is that Anderson, something of an old hand at character-driven drama (Session 9 and The Machinist), doesn't spend an inordinate amount of time outlining each character's back story and/or motivations. He simply provides just enough information to help hold the plot together and his talented cast does the rest. Part vacation-from-hell, part riveting-glimpse-inside-a-foreign-world, Transsiberian is a crackling, spare little exercise in cinematic tension that should find an audience on DVD.
Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, this anamorphic widescreen transfer will send a chill up your spine, thanks to the crisp, vivid scenes of wintry tundra. The colors are a bit muted throughout, but blacks remain inky without becoming noisy and the level of detail is expectantly sharp. An all-around great image.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack has a few instances to shine -- particularly when the trains get up and going -- but for the most part, it's relegated to conveying ambient sounds and dialogue, which it does clearly and cleanly, with no distortion or drop-out. The soundfield, notably during the outdoor scenes, does a nice job of immersing the viewer in the bleak, wintry surroundings. An optional Dolby 2.0 stereo track is included, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Trailers for War, Inc., Sukiyaki Western Django, Priceless, Birds of America and Contract Killers is all she wrote.
Part vacation-from-hell, part riveting-glimpse-inside-a-foreign-world, Transsiberian is a crackling, spare little exercise in cinematic tension that should find an audience on DVD. Recommended.