When we are young, one of the earliest pieces of advice we’re most often given is, “don’t talk to strangers.” Of course, an optimistic response could be that everyone is a stranger until they become your friend but obviously this would most likely be offered by folks who haven’t spent a whole lot of time in the company of Alfred Hitchcock movies. No, as those of us—such as Transsiberian director and master-of-suspense fan Brad Anderson would tell you--beware the lure of a beguiling stranger whose smile and ease seems a bit too rehearsed, especially when you’re traveling abroad.
Whether it’s when we’re away at college and trying to avoid the dreaded freshman ten or traveling on our own, the tendency is to gravitate towards others to feel less alone. Of course, when doing so, we seldom realize that we’re not being quite as choosy as we may be in familiar surroundings, instead becoming fast acquaintances with others that we may have avoided in "real life."
This is especially the case for the cheerfully and aggressively friendly American hardware-store owner and train-enthusiast Roy, played by Woody Harrelson in Anderson’s brilliant new film. Returning from a church mission trip from Beijing, China to Moscow by way of the Trans-Siberian Express train, Roy and his quieter, more streetwise photographer wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer) find themselves startled into the forced, awkward intimacy of sharing a jam-packed compartment with two total strangers.
The handsome Latin American Carolos (Eduardo Noriega) and his much younger girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara) seem on surface level to be the polar opposite of our Iowan, straight-laced leads until secrets come tumbling out, revealing that Jessie has quite a checkered past. Yet as she warns her husband in a brilliant Tennessee Williams quote, if “you kill off all my demons, Roy... my angels might die too,” and the group becomes an unlikely foursome in as Roy describes “the wild, wild east.”
However, they’re not quite sure just how wild it is until the film takes its first of several unexpected turns right around the thirty-minute mark and while the film’s trailer and numerous spoiler-filled reviews (avoid Roger Ebert’s and Stephen Holden’s until after you finish the film) have you expecting things will turn out one way, Anderson fools you again and again. Setting itself up to be a film about two Americans who mistakenly become the tourists who knew too much, to misquote a Hitchcock title, in trusting the wrong people, soon a major character is killed off in a brilliantly vicious and surprising twist of fate, another goes missing, and we’re reacquainted midway through with the man whom we see in the film’s beginning. Sir Ben Kingsley—that unrivaled master of accents and intimidation-- shows up for a mysterious turn as a Russian inspector whose alliances and true character we’re unable to predict until the film careens towards a suspenseful conclusion.
Transsiberian arrives on time at your local DVD and Blu-ray retailer on November 4 from First Look Studios. While the only complaint would be that in the Russian dialogue-based scenes, the yellow subtitles are far too small, otherwise the stellar picture quality and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound was top-notch on the DVD. Featuring previews but zero extra features save for Spanish subtitles and English ones for the deaf or hearing-impaired, the film itself is the main draw.
While mood-wise it's a far cry from my favorite Anderson film—the underrated critically lauded science fiction tinged romantic comedy Happy Accidents starring Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio—Transsiberian is much more accessible than his unflinchingly dark Christian Bale vehicle The Machinist. And moreover, Transsiberian is Anderson's best crafted work so far and one that no doubt you’ll find yourself wanting to watch more than once, if only to try and discover what clue you missed the first time around.
Definitely a train worth catching and one that—similar to Roy and Jessie—you’ll want to stay pretty much in the dark until after you take it in but it’s one of 2008’s biggest sleepers and one you’ll instantly want to recommend to others. However, it may be best if you avoid approaching strangers in the process, especially ones with way too many stamps in their passport and strange advice on not standing out in customs.
Luckily, Anderson failed to listen to his own advice—making a film that intellectually stands out head and shoulders above a large percentage of Hollywood factory-made thrillers by serving up a work so deliciously gripping and sinister that even Hitchcock would probably muster up the faintest trace of that subtle smile in appreciation.