Emily Mortimer stars in TRANSSIBERIAN, directed by Brad Anderson for First Look Studios.

Transsiberian (2008, Brad Anderson)

The train thriller has been a film standard for seventy years, probably longer. I can’t remember the last one, as the genre’s sort of fallen off in the last ten years. The naive American tourist is trouble genre is younger, but not by much. Transsiberian combines the two–a natural combination–but it’s far more of a character study than a thriller, as much of the film hinges on Emily Mortimer’s decision process. Accordingly, the whole thing rests on her and she really isn’t up for it. It’s kind of strange, since she’s a fine physical actress, she’s just never once believable as the recovering substance abuser who’s married an Iowa hardware store owner (Woody Harrelson). Maybe the American accent just put up a wall for her….

Brad Anderson’s approach, both to the storytelling and the direction, is very inventive and not really mainstream, blockbuster Hollywood. So the script itself being as unoriginal in its constant use of standard Hollywood thriller mores is a little strange. It starts with the mysterious, are they or aren’t they bad fellow travelers (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara). Well, actually it starts with the first Woody Harrelson is a rube because he’s from Iowa joke. There are four or five of them and it’s kind of strange to see a film mock its ostensible protagonist. The film does start differently, however, with an uncritical churchgoers opening scene. It’s kind of nice… maybe all the rube jokes were to make up for it.

Harrelson barely resonates in the film (his character is so one-note), with Noriega dominating the first half as the male presence. Noriega isn’t even particularly good, he just isn’t supposed to be mind-numbingly boring… which is exactly what attracts Mortimer to him.

Here’s where Transsiberian is so interesting–Mortimer’s not at all a good person, which makes her an interesting protagonist. Except the script saddles her with all this unbelievable backstory and it’s all very simplistic. Without the backstory, the film would probably run ten minutes shorter and be a lot less expository.

The script splits the film into two halves–the naive tourist thriller and the train thriller (even though the train’s in the whole movie)–and it works toward making the film more interesting as Mortimer has a lot more to do on her own in the second half and she really just doesn’t cut it.

Ben Kingsley’s got a decent part. Kate Mara isn’t bad. Thomas Kretschmann’s good in what should have been an uncredited cameo.

Alfonso Vilallonga’s score is so good it gets its own paragraph.

As Mortimer essayed the big revelation scene (the first big revelation scene, the last one is actually very quiet as the film excuses all of Mortimer’s actions in the end so she can have a Hollywood ending), I wondered if she was bad or the script was bad. Then I imagined Rose Byrne in her role and Transsiberian would have been excellent. Or really good anyway (Byrne would have been great). Anderson’s always been a competent, cute filmmaker and this one is no different. He usually just casts a little better.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Brad Anderson; written by Anderson and Will Conroy; director of photography, Xavier Giménez; edited by Jaume Martí; music by Alfonso Vilallonga; production designer, Alain Bainée; produced by Julio Fernández; released by First Look Studios.

Starring Woody Harrelson (Roy), Emily Mortimer (Jessie), Kate Mara (Abby), Eduardo Noriega (Carlos), Thomas Kretschmann (Kolzak) and Ben Kingsley (Grinko).

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