Two Americans traveling the legendary Transsiberian Express are caught up in a terrifying nightmare of sinister fellow travelers, Russian cops and a backpack full of matryoshka dolls in "Transsiberian," an elegantly crafted Hitchcock-style thriller directed and co-written by Brad Anderson. It will be released Tuesday on DVD.
Anderson is the versatile talent who directed the psychological-thriller "The Machinist" and co-wrote and directed offbeat love story "Next Stop, Wonderland." He offers a masterful performance here, keeping the viewer off-balance throughout as the suspense accelerates to the terrifying finale.
The tension begins before the opening credits as Inspector Grinko, a superbly sinister Ben Kingsley, and other officers investigate a drug-related slaying in Vladivostok.
Cut to China, where Americans on a Christian mission work trip are being given an "atta-boy" speech for a job well done.
Among them are Jessie (Emily Mortimer), a chain-smoking amateur photographer married to a hardware store owner named Roy (Woody Harrelson).
Roy and Jessie decide to take the train rather than fly home, and they end up sharing their sleeping compartment with a brash, worldly wise Spaniard named Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and his young American girlfriend, Abby (Kate Mara).
Mortimer is superb as Jessie, a girl with a troubled past who has married a steady, boring guy with a train set in his basement. There is tension between Roy and Jessie, tension Carlos picks up on as he seeks opportunities to be alone with Jessie.
This is not just a well-plotted crime story, but also a fascinating character study. What demons lurk behind the better angels of our nature, and will emerge, given the right circumstances?
When Roy fails to get back on the train after a stopover in Irkutsk, Jessie is frantic with worry; Carlos and Abby offer to get off the train and wait with her in hopes that Roy will catch up with them.
Anderson is a master of psychological suspense, and Mortimer is superb as Jessie starts to unravel under pressure. She's a woman unwilling to reveal her secrets, and much of the suspense revolves around a secret she won't share.
The well-crafted screenplay is rich with dark humor and interesting foreshadowing. The music of the soundtrack enhances the mood with such seemingly random choices as "Windy" by the Association or Russian folk song "Kalinka Maya" played at critical moments.
Of course, train movies come with their own creepily claustrophobic atmosphere. Post-Soviet Russia, with its surly train attendants and decaying buildings, adds a lawless frontier quality that conjures up the Wild West. The frozen landscape (with Lithuania standing in for Russia) is hostile, too -- a temperature of 23 below won't take long to kill you. The R rating is for a graphic scene of torture.
STARRING: Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega
DIRECTOR: Brad Anderson
RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes
RATING: R for some violence, including torture and language.
THE LOWDOWN: A trip on the legendary Transsiberian Express becomes a nightmare for an American couple. Mostly in English; English subtitles when Russian is spoken. Will be available Tuesday on DVD.