An Old-School Thrill Ride

Friday, August 15, 2008

In frozen Vladivostok, Russia, a drug deal has resulted in a particularly gruesome murder and a significant amount of missing heroin and euros. Police detective Grinko (Sir Ben Kingsley) conducts a perfunctory, enigmatic investigation.

In Beijing, Roy (Woody Harrelson) and his wife, Jessie (Emily Mortimer), are finishing up work with a church mission and are about to board the Trans-Siberian Railway for Moscow. He's one of those infuriatingly cheerful types who strikes up conversations with random strangers and loves the idea of a long train ride. She's more reserved and takes photographs of almost everybody she sees. It's their first big trip together.

They find themselves sharing a cramped sleeping compartment with another couple: Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), who's as friendly as Roy, too friendly actually; and Abby (Kate Mara), who smokes sullenly. These two have been everywhere and seen everything, and they warn the innocent Americans about the problems they might encounter with cops at the border.

Because "Transsiberian" is a suspense film of the old school, you know things are going to turn nasty. But how nasty and in which directions? That's where writer-director Brad Anderson shines. With the claustrophobic railway setting and the ominous police officers in the background, Hitchcock is an obvious reference point. But so are the Coen brothers. The movie's best twists recall the narrative shocks of "Blood Simple," and the snowy landscapes echo "Fargo."

Anderson, who also made the creepy film "The Machinist" and directed episodes of "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Wire," works through his main characters. The story won't pass the most rigorous logic tests, but it doesn't insult your intelligence either.

Harrelson is fine in an "aw, shucks" performance, but most of the heavy dramatic lifting is done by Mortimer. Although in some shots she looks eerily like a young Demi Moore, she's believable throughout. Sir Ben quietly steals all of his scenes. All in all, the film is an excellent, if modest, alternative for moviegoers who have been blockbustered into submission this summer.

-- Mike Mayo

Transsiberian R, 111 minutes Contains graphic violence and brief nudity. Area theaters.

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