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It takes six days to travel from Beijing to Moscow via train.   The ride will take you through some of the most remote, wild, unpopulated terrain on the planet.   It is the 21st century equivalent of the Wild West; one character in “Transsiberian” calls it “the Wild East.”   Cinematically, it’s the kind of setup that Hitchcock would love; the restrictions are built in.   You can’t get off the train, or even open the windows, most of the time.   And when you can get off, well, where are you?  “Polar Express” this isn’t.

But hold on – great setups do not guarantee great movies.  (Witness: “30 Days of Night,” a terrible movie built around a pretty solid setup.)  The director still has to deliver the goods; otherwise, all you’ve got is a sense of potential and an empty feeling.   Thankfully, director Brad Anderson’s handling of “Transsiberian” is a case study on how to deliver the goods.   Through expert and meticulous casting of the small parts, muted cinematography and generally moody direction, “Transsiberian” establishes a sense of dread and anticipation early on, and then builds and builds.   Something bad is bound to happen on this train.   You can just feel it.  

Emily Mortimer and Woody Harrelson play a newly married couple who, at the end of a missions trip in China, decide to “have an adventure” by taking the train to Moscow and flying home from there.   Harrelson is a train enthusiast, and Mortimer has a wild past marked with (mostly regrettable) “adventures.”   They share a cabin with Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara.  Mortimer immediately identifies with Mara, who she sees as a younger version of herself.  But Noriega is something else – a charmer, a man with secrets, mysterious, dangerous.   Mara wanders the world trying to find herself, but Noriega has already chosen his path. 

“Transsiberian” is primarily seen through Mortimer’s eyes.   She’s an amateur photographer, which is movie shorthand to say she sees things other people don’t.  It is Mortimer who senses the danger in Noriega and the innocent lostness in Mara.  Her husband, on the other hand could not be blinder if someone gouged out his eyes.   Harrelson is the greatest weakness of “Transsiberian;” he plays the characters as such a thumping idiot that you almost wish something bad would happen to him.  I’ve watched the movie twice and decided the character didn’t have to be played this way.   The script makes room for depth and nuance in the character’s portrayal, but Harrelson ignores it.   I hesitate to bring religion into it, but I think Harrelson plays him this way because the character is an Evangelical Christian (from Iowa, coming back from a missions trip) and Harrelson has nothing but contempt for Evangelicals.   There’s a rule of thumb among serious actors that you should never play a character in front of an audience that you can’t identify or sympathize with, no matter how evil or vile they are.   Harrelson flagrantly violates this rule; he delivers a caricature when a character is called for.  


But “Transsiberian” survives despite him.  Mortimer is great; she is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses to watch.   The plot unfolds beautifully; this is the kind of movie where terrible things happen, but they are the result of reasonable choices throughout.   I don’t want to spoil the plot, but suffice it to say Noriega isn’t who he says he is, Mortimer finds herself with an awful lot to hide, and a narcotics inspector (Ben Kingsley) with a nose for lies—and a few secrets of his own– gets on the train.  

And just when you think this is going to be a quiet thriller, a tale of lies and hiding places, the train derails.   Literally.   And all of a sudden, chaos is the order of the day.  The third act feels much more like a horror than suspense, complete with a grisly torture scene, a breathless escape, and an awful lot of yelling and threatening.   This turn of events surprised me, but looking back, it’s where “Transsiberian” was going all along.   I, just like the passengers, just got on the train without knowing it.  


  • To Hitchcock fans
  • To anyone who knows the difference between “suspense” and “horror.”

Not Recommended

  • To Siderodromophobiacs.  (go ahead, look it up.)
  • If you don’t LIKE the feeling of dread and terror rising slowly in your chest.


Transsiberian is available today on DVD.  

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