Transsiberianrecommended viewing

Why isn’t this at the multiplexes?
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2008
Director: 
Brad Anderson
Starring: 
Woody Harrelson, Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega
The Setup: 
Naïve American couple get mixed up in drug running in Russia.
Discussion: 

It was raining, and me and my friend thought why not pass it in this, which was lingering at one little arthouse. It turned out to be a delightful way to spend a rainy afternoon.

First we see Ben Kingsley as Grinko coming into the scene of a drug-related killing, in which a frozen corpse stands over a storage unit emptied of drugs. Abe is a narcotics detective and—there ya go, this snippet was just there to introduce that. We then meet our protagonists, Emily Mortimer as Jess and Woody Harrelson as Roy, at the closing meeting of a Christian outreach program in China, where Jess’ photographs are featured. The have decided, as an adventure, to take the transsiberian railway from Beijing to Moscow, about a week’s journey. They are, of course, in for more of an adventure than they bargained for.

In their cabin, they are making romantic and about to go to it, when Jess reminds Roy about that whole condom thing. Roy asks if they can’t do it without, just this once, Jess says no, and then Roy disappointedly says let’s just forget it then and goes off to sleep alone in his bunk, turned to the wall. Love me, love my sperm is what he’s saying, and we soon find out that he wants a kid while Jess doesn’t, as well as a bunch of other marital problems between the two. Many of these problems revolve around the fact that Roy is a wide-eyed dork who just adores trains, and Jess is a former alcoholic who was taken in by him and set on a better path, but is now bored out of her mind by him. But terror, terror will bring them together.

Soon they meet their new cabinmates, hot Spaniard Carlos and his raccoon-eyed American girlfriend, Abby. Of course, to us, they have a blinking neon sign above them that says “trouble,” but Jess is intrigued by them, especially in light of spending a week alone with her dull-as-toast husband, and Roy is just like a little puppy who’ll be friendly to anyone.

We’ll skip over a lot of the details while Jess gets to know Abby better, flirts with Carlos, and several slightly ominous things happen. At one point they are told about how the police brutalize suspected drug runners in Russia, and are in fact to be feared as much as the gangsters—which makes a big impression on Jess. At a certain point Roy is alone with Carlos in a deserted spot, and Carlos picks up a big iron bar. Next thing you know, the train is leaving that station and Roy isn’t on it.

While they wait, Carlos shows Jess a bunch of Russian dolls he is bringing to sell for big bucks back wherever. When Jess mentions that he has these while in the presence of both he and Abby, Abby gets furious and storms off. Jess intuits this to mean that Abby didn’t know he had them.

SPOILERS > > >
Ok, so Jess is starting to get a little freaked out by Carlos, and really wishes Roy would show up. Carlos is also starting to come on to her, and she has made it clear that she is not quite sure she is opposed to this idea. He comes in one morning to use her shower, saying his is broken, and while he's in her room she goes downstairs to take a call from Roy—the dumbfuck, he just lost track of time while in wonderment over the old trains. Abby is still out somewhere, and the train doesn't leave until 4pm, so Carlos and Jess go to this remote, broken-down church out in the middle of nowhere.

Now yes, we're in the spoiler zone, and I know you, like me, are thinking "Yeah, yeah, Carlos planted drugs on Jess, I figured that out already," BUT, there is actually another, wholly unforeseen and ingenious twist that we're going to discuss, so if this movie sounds interesting, I would strongly advise you to skip past the spoiler zone now. Yes, NOW.

Okay, you've been warned. Carlos is acting weird the whole time, and starts getting amorous with Jess, and she tells him no, no, and no, but he keeps after her. So she says it in the form of a bash to the head with a large rod. STILL the fucker comes after her, and Jess, who might have backed this up with a simple "See, I'm really serious now," or perhaps a gentle "No means no," instead bashes the sumbitch repeatedly in the head until he is a lifeless corpse! Surprise!

Okay, so she's ALL wigged. On the bus back, she realizes she has blood all over her jacket, and throws it out. She sees Roy, waves to him—and realizes she has blood on her gloves. She tosses them out in the nearest trash recepticale, while you in the theater are sitting there going "Oh, they're going to find that. Oh, that will trip her up," and you are experiencing, genuine, honestly-earned suspense! Jess is back with Roy on the train for like nine seconds before Ben Kingsley's Grinko shows up, saying he's a narcotics detective. Jess pretends like she doesn't see Abby running alongside the train looking for Carlos, and hears Grinko describe how drug smugglers press heroin into common tourist trinkets. You will recall that Jess is terrified of the Russian police, based on the story she heard earlier [and another incident she witnessed]. She goes through her luggage and finds—you guessed it—30 Russian dolls, that crumble to power when scratched. This girl is now trying to act all cool and calm while she is obviously shitting a cinderblock. That's where I'm going to leave it, because it continues from here with Jess' rising tension, the fact we all know that Grinko knows she's lying, Roy being an obtuse doofus, etc.
< < < SPOILERS END

There are several good twists and unexpected directions, but that one additional twist really enlivens everything in such a clever way. I watched the trailer for this and thought I could pretty much write the story from that—which is not to say I wouldn't have minded it going through all the expected points—but that twist added an underlying tension that made all of the expected points new, interesting and suspenseful, and really keeps you genuinely on the edge of your seat, which is something I've learned not to expect from thrillers anymore.

This is written and directed by Brad Anderson, who did a well-regarded low-budget horror film that I HATED, called Session 9. Maybe I'll have to go back and re-evaluate it now. Everyone in the cast is good and are well-cast. Mortimer bugs me, but she plays characters that capitalize on that whiny, neurotic quality she has. Harrelson makes an excellent wide-eyed doofus with a [boring] heart of gold. Noreiga is always good, and it was halfway through before I realized that he is the guy from Open Your Eyes and Burnt Money.

When it was over, my friend turned to me and said "That was GREAT," and we both wondered why this was only playing at one dinky little art theater in Manhattan when it should be at multiplexes nationwide. It's big, accessible, thrilling, intelligent but doesn't take particular smarts to watch, has murders, gunplay, chases, crashes… it's not like this is L'Avventura. If you want to see a really good suspense film that is interesting, intelligent and, for once, actually generates suspense, you won't be sorry.

Should you watch it: 

Yes! This was a real pleasant surprise, and I'm just sorry it's not getting wider exposure.