It seems like the art of the thriller has taken a hit lately, replaced by star-strewn ego trips disguised as nail-biting suspensers. Unfortunately, far too many rely on serial killers, supernatural affectation (thank you, X-Files) or ridiculously convoluted plots to weave their ever-growing web of mediocrity. You have to wonder where all the Hitchcock imitators have gone. Even Brian DePalma, the most slavish student of his films, seems to have given up on the genre.
Leave it then to under-the-radar director Brad Anderson (Session 9, Next Stop Wonderland, The Machinist) to effectively channel the Master in his icy train-bound (another Hitchcockian nod) thriller, Transsiberian. Sure, his story might be a bit on the conventional side, but, damn, Anderson's got some serious movie-making chops. His plot twists are plausibly clever, his atmosphere is gleefully paranoid and his protagonist, played to perfection by Emily Mortimer, is refreshingly complex and entirely sympathetic.
Jessie and Roy (Mortimer and Woody Harrelson) are an American missionary couple traveling home along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, in order to deal with some unresolved marital problems. When their bunkmates turn out to be a lascivious Spaniard (Eduardo Noriega) and his moody girlfriend (Kate Mara), they find themselves caught in a downward spiral of sexual menace, heroin smuggling, corrupt Russian cops and brutal murder. Not to mention Siberia's glorious winter wasteland.
Anderson, who co-scripted, turns the heat on slow burn, letting us get to know Jessie for nearly an hour before twisting a knife into the plot. From there it's one suspenseful moment after another, as her predicament grows increasingly dire. What makes the film's mousetrap-like situation so compelling is that Jessie is as much a victim of her own choices as she is a dupe, allowing Anderson to deliver a nonjudgmental take on human strength and weakness, as well as our American sense of privilege. He's one of the best unknown directors around, and, as he did in his creepy Session 9, he creates a unique world unto itself. Whether or not you buy into the thriller he's constructed — and it does derail in its final act — you'll feel like you've visited another world, one that's far from the safety of home.
Harrelson, who does a decent job with his thinly written role, gets top billing, but it's really Mortimer who commands the film, burrowing into a nervy character who struggles to balance innate decency with a selfish bad-girl past. Anderson is smart to present a heroine with feet of clay, and it drives home his point about the terrible consequences of not taking responsibility for your actions.
Similarly good is Ben Kingsley as a shady Russian detective. This has been the summer of Kingsley, popping up in a quintet of mostly independent films (including The Wackness, War, Inc., Elegy and The Love Guru). The 65-year-old actor has fallen into an interesting career rhythm, vacillating between sober understatement and affected scenery-chewing. Thankfully, here, he's more the former than the latter.
Amid the Hollywood detritus that's washed up in the multiplex these last few weeks, Transsiberian's tale of tourists-in-trouble is a more welcome sight than it might otherwise be. Though its payoff falls flat, Anderson does a great job of reeling you in, jangling your nerves and capitalizing on our country's chronic xenophobia. And just in time for the election season.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.