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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Transsiberian (Blu-ray)
Transsiberian (Blu-ray)
First Look Pictures // R // November 4, 2008 // Region A
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 1, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Buy from Amazon.com
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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Thrillers aren't
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especially interested in suspense anymore. They're so driven by formula that there's really not any room for it; they're much more about jolts and lobbing out a barrage of increasingly ridiculous twists and illogical red herrings to keep the audience off-guard. What's even more depressing is seeing how frequently "Hitchcockian" is tossed around at those lazy, room temperature thrillers. There really are a handful of movies that deserve that label, though, and Brad Anderson's Transsiberian is among that select few.

Transsiberian opens as a middle-aged couple -- Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) -- are heading back home to the 'States after finishing up some missionary work their church sponsored in China. Jessie's been kind of restless after setting up shop in the Midwest, and Roy has a wide-eyed fascination with trains, so making the trek from Beijing to Moscow on-board the Transsiberian Express seems like a perfect way for them to wrap up this final leg of their trip. Even with just a quick glance, it's pretty clear that they're tourists. The quiet and reserved Jessie is a seasoned photographer hiding behind her camera lens, while Roy is practically busting at the seams, a pair of mouse ears and a fanny pack shy of hitting every last tourist stereotype. The Transsiberian railway isn't altogether the most tourist-friendly place in this stretch of the world, though. It's an artery clogged by drug mules, and Russia is in such a state of decay that the police are taking increasingly extreme measures in dealing with these criminals, in part to help line their own pockets.

Roy and Jessie wind up sharing their cabin with a young couple -- a Spaniard named Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and his barely-twentysomething American girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara) -- and it's kind of an uneasy pairing. Abby is even colder and more detached than Jessie, Carlos' glances at Roy's wife seem to linger for just a bit too long, and their helpful suggestions about skirting the lines at Customs are appreciated but
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kind of raise an eyebrow at the same time. During one brief stop, the guys and gals part ways; Abby and Jessie start to bond over the wanderlust sparked by their mutually troubled pasts, and Carlos and Roy take a look at the fleet of vintage trains just off the beaten path. Only three of them make it back on board, though. Jessie's frantic about Roy vanishing like that, but Carlos assures her that her husband is certain to be on the next train, and he and Abby even offer to wait with her at the next stop. No one on the railway is able to turn up any sign of Roy, though, and Jessie soon finds herself under the suspicious eye of a Russian detective (Ben Kingsley) as she becomes ensnared in a plot of heroin and murder.

Most reviews of Transsiberian would reveal more about the plot, and I'm deliberately being kind of cagy about the specifics. The less you know about Transsiberian going in, the better. Writer/director Brad Anderson has a marvelous talent for setting up scenarios that seem like they're obviously going to settle into convention -- where you can take a few plot points he introduces and seemingly piece together every last clichéd beat from there -- and then completely derails those expectations. Anderson mentions in the disc's extras that he wanted to take a more documentary-like approach with Transsiberian, and the movie does feel very much grounded in reality. The twists and turns in the plot are natural and believable, not the machinations of an overpaid screenwriter with a dog-eared copy of notes from some Robert McKee seminar.

Transsiberian never overdramatizes the suspense and doesn't lean on stock clichés or booming stings in the score. When it veers away from expectations, Anderson doesn't direct that shift like some monumental, Earth-shattering event. While this isn't an approach that's going to be to all tastes -- Transsiberian is a methodical, restrained, and slower burn that sets out to build a persistent sense of unease and the sort of paranoia so prevalent in '70s thrillers -- I found it enormously effective.

Anderson understands the
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fundamentals of suspense as very, very few directors do: the power of something as simple as a lingering closeup of a suspicious eye, the intensity as a character tries desperately to hold onto a dangerous secret while those around her are completely oblivious that anything is wrong, and how to best let the tension snowball through atmosphere and well-drawn characters. Emily Mortimer is exceptionally compelling as a woman struggling with her own set of demons who buckles under the additional strain of this waking nightmare. In the same way that I think The Strangers is more engaging for being anchored around an uncomfortably strained couple rather than a lovey-dovey husband and wife, Transsiberian is more effective because Jessie isn't some naive cupie doll who's steeled into some sort of second-rate action hero. Jessie isn't just afraid of what might happen to her -- she's afraid of what she might become herself, juggling her weariness of suburban mundanity, a reckless streak, and a reluctance to settle back into bad habits. Jessie doesn't fit comfortably into the any of the usual boxes, making for a complicated and incredibly engaging character.

As extraordinary a job as Transsiberian does in avoiding settling into formula for so much of its runtime, the movie does become strangely conventional as it draws to a close. It's still effective and suspenseful, but that sense of logic and restraint fades away to make room for The Big Climax. Still, that's a mild complaint given the strength of the rest of the film, and as Anderson maintains his firm grasp on these characters even in such exaggerated situations, it's not the sort of abrupt, breakneck shift that'd deflate the tension of the rest of the movie.

Anderson reteams with The Machinist's cinematographer Xavi Giménez for Transsiberian, and the result is visually exceptional. The film is littered with jaw-droppingly expansive shots -- stark landscapes blanketed in white -- that essentially make the thousands of miles of track on the railway a central character in its own right. The cinematography is peppered with subtle, artful flourishes that further separate Transsiberian from a standard issue thriller, and the handheld photography infuses the movie with a sense of urgency without ever feeling jittery or chaotic.

Artful, intelligent, and unnerving, Transsiberian builds on a foundation grounded in reality to shape an exceptionally effective thriller. This is a film that's easy to overlook as summer blockbusters continue to bombard Blu-ray week in and week out, but Transsiberian is a very rewarding discovery in high definition, and readers bored with movies leaning on stale genre clichés as a crutch are encouraged to seek it out. Highly Recommended.

Video: Director
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Brad Anderson mentions in the disc's making-of featurette that he didn't meticulously plan out his shots for Transsiberian, a freewheeling approach I never would've picked up on by how visually dazzling the end result is. Despite being shot on a modest budget, Transsiberian easily ranks up there with the most impressive day-and-date releases I've caught on Blu-ray. The scope image is immaculately detailed, and I was frequently startled by its crispness and clarity. A faintly grainy texture preserves the movie's natural, filmlike appearance, although never to the point of distraction. Contrast is remarkably strong, bolstered by deep, dense black levels, and the icy, desaturated palette captures the bitter cold of the film's Siberian backdrop. Despite its lower-than-average bitrate, the VC-1 encoding never stutters, and there's no sign of any filtering or noise reduction to ease compression. This is an extraordinary effort from First Look and proof-positive that a movie doesn't need a $120 million price tag to approach reference quality.

Audio: Transsiberian boasts a strong sound design as well, although it's a mild letdown that First Look opted not to give this Blu-ray disc a lossless soundtrack. Their next Blu-ray release, Sukiyaki Western Django, does include a TrueHD track, so hopefully lossless audio will be standard practice from First Look going forward.

This 640Kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 track is still a strong effort, though, clearly mixed with multichannel rigs in mind. It's a spry, lively, and immersively atmospheric mix, teeming with bursts of steam, rushes of wind, and the clatter of wheels against the steel tracks. Certain effects are subtle but enormously effective, particularly the very convincing sound of a light snowfall and faint background chatter giving the scenes in the dining car more of a personality. The low-end can be rather hefty, especially the wall-rattling rumble of the train careening down the tracks, and there's one abrupt, devastatingly violent moment in the climax that demands to be experienced in surround sound. It's not a flawless track, no -- some incidental dialogue strikes me as seeming kind of low in the mix, and a handful of sound effects seem a bit thin and shrill to my ears -- but I'm still impressed by how great Transsiberian sounds on Blu-ray.

A Dolby Digital stereo track has also been included alongside subtitles in English (SDH) and Spanish.

Extras: It's
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somewhat of a disappointment that this Blu-ray disc really only includes one extra, but at least it's a compelling one. "The Making of Transsiberian" (34 min.) veers away from the overly promotional missteps -- playing like an extended trailer or being littered with lightweight Access Hollywood-style interviews -- of most making-of featurettes. No, this one is sincerely driven by documenting the production of the film, very sparingly making use of clips from the movie, avoiding recapping the plot, or unnecessarily re-introducing the characters. It's just such a welcomed change of pace to watch a featurette like this instead of the vapid, standard issue "HBO First Look" approach.

"The Making of Transsiberian" touches on the experience on the railway twenty years ago that compelled Brad Anderson to write and direct this story, quite a bit of discussion about Anderson's directorial approach as well as Transsiberian's freeform visual style, and the challenges of reproducing a trek spanning thousands and thousands of miles on a modest budget. A fairly wide selection of talent on both sides of the camera is offered a chance to contribute, and their comments are framed around an enormous amount of behind the scenes footage. This look at the making of Transsiberian is considerably above-average, and I wish this were the sort of template that other DVDs and Blu-ray discs would follow.

The disc's making-of featurette is letterboxed in standard definition and non-anamorphic widescreen. Although First Look's Blu-ray discs leading up to Transsiberian have been teeming with high definition trailers, the four clips offered here are all DVD quality. A trailer for Transsiberian itself has not been included.

Conclusion: Helmed by a writer/director with a confidence and restraint too rarely seen in this genre, Transsiberian is an exceptional thriller. It veers away from stock formulas and theatrics in favor of an unnerving and deliberately slow burn. The fact that, at least to a point, Transsiberian feels so grounded in reality accentuates the intensity of the film's suspense, benefiting further from Brad Anderson's extraordinary visual eye and a remarkably strong cast. Transsiberian is the sort of jaw-droppingly gorgeous film that screams out to be experienced in high definition, and even though the limited extras and lack of lossless audio may come as a bit of a disappointment, the strength of the film and its visuals coupled with a very modest sticker price make for a movie very much worth discovering on Blu-ray. Transsiberian is available as I write this for pre-order at Amazon for $14.99, and especially at that unexpectedly low price, this Blu-ray disc is a near-essential purchase. Highly Recommended.
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