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STUDIO: First Look Pictures
RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes
Fear and Loathing in Vladivostok.
Emily Mortimer, Woody Harrelson, Eduardo Noriega, Kate Mara, Thomas Kretchmann, and Ben Kingsley.
Roy and Jessie (Harrelson and Mortimer) are a Christian missionary couple on their way home from China on the Trans-Siberian Express. On the way, they meet a charming Spaniard (Noriega) and his pensive, Seattle-born girlfriend (Mara) who pose a threat to the couple in more ways than one.
Structurally, good suspense is no different than good sex, in that it takes an assured, patient, and nimble pair of hands that know when and where to go to keep the anticipation at a bubbling pitch until you move in for the main event.
Following that logic, the problem with Transsiberian is that Brad Anderson is, as always, amazing at foreplay, but sorry honey, he’s way too sleepy tonight to finish what he started.
What a bastard.
The real pisser about Transsiberian is that, for the first half of the film, Brad Anderson almost has the audience convinced he’s gonna beat the odds, and make that yawn inducing synopsis worth your while. He creates interesting characters, gives them palpable, believable chemistry, places them in a foreign, desolate environment that’s fascinating, beautiful and starkly hellish all at once, and even though you can easily see the outcome of Carlos (Eduardo Noriega’s character) coming on to Emily Mortimer like someone slipped him 40 grams of ecstasy last night, Anderson and both actors keep the build up on such a short, deliberate leash that it’s still engaging all the way. In a way, Woody Harrelson has the hardest job in this part of the film. He’s playing a train-loving conservative Christian rube who’s obviously more impressed with tourism, tourists, and sightseeing than his wife is, and he skirts dangerously close at times to being a cartoon character, a reformed Yosemite Sam of sorts. But Harrelson knows exactly when to rein it in, and by the end, you absolutely believe that Jessie would’ve fallen for and married the lug.
Make no mistake, though: This is Emily Mortimer’s movie. As in, this is a dark horse Oscar contender performance here. While we are told Jessie’s backstory in an appropriately terse, guarded manner, everything else we need to know about her is in Mortimer’s eyes, her body language. So many of her best moments in the film are silent, and then she goes and milks her sparse dialogue for all the nuance its worth.
She’s also the only consistent bright side to the second half of the film, which is where the whole thing flies off the rails (LOL). The film starts as a tale of dangerous temptation, where a kept woman has the choice to give up her new, safe, “happy” life for the perpetual danger and intrigue of her new Spanish lover. When the second half starts, it’s all about Jessie dealing with the guilt of her transgressions, small and, well, not so small, let’s say. The film then takes a wrong turn into generic thriller territory. The fact that Carlos and his girlfriend are coke mules just added to their intrigue in the first half. Now it’s the driving force of the film, and Anderson doesn’t do anything particularly special with it. Ben Kingsley enters the film at this point, playing a Russian narcotics officer, and he does thankfully get a few minutes to shine. There’s a scene where he has dinner with Roy and Jessie, and he talks wistfully of his family, and Russia’s past, and for a few beautiful minutes, you’re allowed to forget the poor bastard was in Bloodrayne and The Love Guru. From there, though, he’s just the typical crooked cop with henchmen chasing Roy and Jessie around in the tundra. And right around there, the film loses its audience and never gets it back.
While the film’s final notes are well done, things wrap up in a nice, neat, predictable little package, and it feels like scenes from the wrong movie take up most of the actual climax. To compare it to Anderson’s other films, it’s like if Trevor Reznik’s tale ended in some abandoned boiler room where he’s chasing Ivan around with a lead pipe, wherein Ivan reveals that he is his father, and breathes his last tell his long forgotten son how much he loves him just as the police arrives. It’s just that awkward and lazy considering the vastly more interesting place where this film starts. Moreover, it’s just plain disappointing from a guy who’s always been good at staying the course when he’s got a story to tell, a goal to reach, a journey to take his characters.
The film isn’t really a dealbreaker as far as Brad Anderson and I go, however. I love Session 9 more than I love freedom, he beat the sophomore slump with The Machinist, far as I’m concerned, and when he’s on point with this film, he’s still a force to be reckoned with as far as laying on the tension and atmosphere thick, and if a stumble at the finish line with a build up this good is the worst we can expect from the guy, he’s still aces in my book.
Don’t worry, Brad. I’m sure this happens to lots of guys.
Outside of a few trailers, you, the viewer, are treated to a grand cavalcade of JACK SHIT. Enjoy.