One of the year's better thrillers, "Transsiberian" starts out as a very plausible and intelligent slow burn train-set melodrama which later morphs into a less effective but still serviceable snow-bound crime thriller.
It's a testament to the skills of director Brad Anderson that in a genre so familiar and plagued with predictability, this film pulls off several unexpected twists involving both the storyline and the nature of the characters themselves. It effectively uses our preconceived notions of not just people but roles in films like this against us, painting an ultimately murky moral world where no-one is a true saint or sinner.
Early scenes quickly setup our scenario - the seemingly naive American rube Roy (Woody Harrelson) and his notably smarter girlfriend Jessie (Emily Mortimer) head from Beijing to Moscow on the famed week-long Transsiberian train trip across the snowfields of China and Russia. Like a less glamorous version of the James Bond films of old, the film takes proper time to indulge in its setting - from talks with various passengers of differing backgrounds, to beauty shots of the icy wastelands, and dealing with what happens when problems arise in such remote locales.
This first hour is where the film excels as Anderson plays with us, well aware that the audience is thinking ahead and exploiting that to up the tension. A short scene set in Vladivostok at the beginning where Russian police come across a corpse make us realize something is going to happen, but we're not sure what. Our couple may be cute, but there's definite uneasy tension between the two. Fellow passengers drop grim portents about drug dealers being onboard and the fate of tangling with Russian police.
A second couple join our pair - a charming but shady Spaniard Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and hardened American runaway Abby (Kate Mara). While many will quickly jump to preconceived notions about them, Anderson cleverly plays on that as well - in some way they are what we expect, which makes the ways they aren't that much more surprising. A scene thirty minutes in set in an icy train yard very clever shows how well Anderson has us under his control. It's very tense, yet nothing has really happened yet, and all these dark possibilities play out in our heads as things slowly start to unravel.
Mortimer does a solid job as our female lead - a bad girl turned good who's hit with many challenges that threaten to pull her back into her old lifestyle. While she doesn't pull off the shady past routine with true conviction, she's strong in a role that dares the audience to root for a character with some very human but somewhat despicable traits. Harrelson as the American simpleton comes off almost over-the-top, but that seems part of the point and he ultimately grounds his performance in his few out-of-character moments. Mara and Noriega lend solid support and brooding stares.
There's a few points where the characters make admittedly stupid decisions like many of these movie characters do, but for most of the action everyone is treated with attentive realism - even if it's only Jessie who feels fully fleshed out as a character. That gritty and convincing tone makes the big shock near the hour mark hit with full force and steers the film into territory we certainly didn't expect.
After that it sadly becomes a less engaging picture as the slow but intriguing setup gives way to more predictable thrills. Ben Kingsley shows up in a fun dark role as an old school narcotics inspector with practical real-world views on how Russian life and the corruption he deals with has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union. It's interesting work, but feels somewhat blunt and ultimately only serves as a prelude to snow chases, crashing train cars and even an icky torture scene.
A clever end which leaves things deliberately somewhat murky bolsters things up, but that half hour sag preceding it stop this from becoming a great work. Yet it certainly doesn't ruin the taste of an otherwise extremely good potboiler with plenty of rewards for those who like taking their time, and is more concerned with things like atmosphere and genuine suspense over big-scale action and breakneck pacing. This is a slow, deliberate and carefully thought out piece for adults who like to savour rather than devour their thrills.