In 1976, Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park unveiled a sensational new ride called the Great American Revolution, the first roller coaster to feature a vertical loop. Its introduction launched a race for greater thrills and faster speeds in the world of amusement park rides. Bookending this development were The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978), two films that reflected movie-going audiences' acclimation to the type of jumps and twists that had shocked and baffled previous generations, but no longer had the power to surprise. The dissolution of the Hollywood Production Code in favor of the more lenient MPAA Rating system led to an upping of the ante in regards what was required of a film to consternate the modern, habituated movie buff and, in this climate, a straightforward thriller such as Transsiberian simply lacks the punch that most audiences expect.
Christian couple Roy and Jessie (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) are neither as virtuous nor as devoted as they first appear. Having completed a volunteer mission trip to Beijing, locomotive enthusiast Roy arranges for the two to travel by train across the Siberian tundra, hoping the trip will help re-ignite their flagging marriage. The cramped accommodations shrink when Carlos and Abby (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara), two traveling language instructors who know a suspicious amount about sneaking over borders, take up residence in the adjacent bunks. The four develop a natural companionship based on their shared language and begin dining together, sightseeing and shopping during the train's brief stopovers. Slowly it becomes apparent to former wild-child Jessie that these two are not as earnest as the goodhearted Roy would like to believe, and the pair unwittingly becomes embroiled in a smuggling plot that threatens their lives. Lean economic times in Eastern Europe have led to desperate measures for many, and the American couple must shed their Western naivete if they want to reach the final station. Ben Kingsley appears as a Russian narcotics officer who is tracking a missing drug cache.
Writer/director Brad Anderson's previous work, The Machinist, has invited comparisons with Alfred Hitchcock, and while Transsiberian retains the feel of a classic thriller, it contains neither the suspense nor elicits the empathy that Hitchcock was a master at drawing out. The plot twists do not redirect the story, merely detour it, but their relative triviality only makes for a bigger jolt when the real turnaround comes toward the film's finale. What makes Transsiberian worthwhile is not its ability to titillate or stymie the audience, but rather the subtlety of its character development. We gradually learn about Jessie's hedonistic past which conflicts with her newfound faith. Her rough-and-tumble history makes her susceptible to the morally-ambivalent world that her companions inhabit, and her willingness to make unwise choices, then lie about them puts herself and her husband, truly a simple man, in mortal danger. Abby also is more complex, her expressed desire to retire to a cabin in Canada to raise her family either a carefully fabricated ruse or else heartfelt wishful thinking, and the question of which one is true makes for a fascinating character thread itself.
It's a hard task to try to shock or surprise a modern movie-goer. Today's audiences are routinely outthinking and second-guessing any film from beginning to end, and Transsiberian tips its hand a little early. As a thriller, it works only modestly. Anderson's script (co-written with Will Conroy) is intriguing, but ultimately conventional and not overly clever. We've seen this story before. But when considered as a character study, the examination of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances, the film delivers. The underlying uncertainty about each character's motivations and honesty is not alleviated until the final few moments of the film, and the audience is guessing right up until the end who really is the good or bad guy. These are real people, not driven to their crimes as a convenient plot device, but because of the complicated social and moral mechanisms that motivate any human to act wrongly. As Jessie's lies grow more complicated, we sympathize with her even as we cringingly watch her dig an ever deeper hole.
Ultimately, Transsiberian is an enjoyable film, both for its natural style and complex character drama. Photographically, its visual simplicity reminds us of great thrillers of the past, and its story, while not particularly inventive, provides enough intricacy to sustain its momentum and retain our interest. In the end, I'd prefer staying up late at night contemplating the human condition rather than being afraid to fall asleep.