Trains used to be constant elements in suspense movies—just think of the use Hitchcock put them to in pictures like “The Lady Vanishes,” “Strangers on a Train” and “North by Northwest”—but as our travel habits changed, they’ve disappeared from the genre more and more. There have been “Runaway Train” (1985), the remake of “Narrow Margin” (1990), and “Switchback” (1997), as well as the crummy slasher flick “Terror Train” (1980). And of course the period piece “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974). But not much else.
But Brad Anderson demonstrates that there’s life in the old genre yet with this thriller, which is a sort of reversal on “Orient Express.” In the Christie story, the train ride was long but elegant, with a passenger list that positively reeked of glamour. The ride on Russia’s famous Trans-Siberian might be equally lengthy—some seven days from Mongolia to Moscow—but in the post-Soviet era the cars are crowded and ramshackle, the travelers bedraggled, the staff surly—and the level of criminality (particularly drug-smuggling) far higher than the single murder committed for reasons hidden in the distant past in Lumet’s film.
The plot begins with a prologue in which Russian police detective Grinko (Ben Kingsley) investigates a drug-related killing in which a lot of pharmaceuticals and money have disappeared. Cut to China, where Iowa couple Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are about to depart after a church missionary trip. Roy, a hardware-store owner and train buff, has persuaded his wife—who, as we’ll learn, had a troubled past—to ride the Trans-Siberian so that he can enjoy his hobby on-site. On the train they quickly befriend their compartment mates, sexy Spaniard Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and his young American girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara). But while Roy is having a good time soaking up the local color (and visiting ancient engines at every stop), he’s oblivious to the fact that Carlos is coming on to his wife and that Abby, a troubled girl herself, is alternately bonding with Jessie and hostile toward her. And what about that cache of nesting dolls Carlos is surreptitiously transporting in a bag he doesn’t want Abby to see?
The narrative takes its critical turn when Roy, engrossed with his hobby, misses the train at one stop and Jessie, Abby and Carlos get off at the next town to wait for him to catch up. There Carlos persuades Jessie, a photographer, to go with him to the ruins of a remote old church that she can shoot. From this point “Transsiberian” turns into a Hitchcockian tale of guilt and increasingly desperate efforts to keep the truth buried—something made more difficult when Grinko shows up as a new traveling companion. The final reel brings a major twist that takes things into less character-driven, more action-centered territory, though the concluding scene is presumably meant to have a cathartic, maybe even redemptive effect for one major figure.
In truth the winding nature of the picture doesn’t entirely gel, and the last half-hour goes off the rails in more ways than one. (There’s a torture scene that might have come straight out of a grade-Z exploitation flick.) And one might wonder why an obvious last-minute turn that could have shown that everybody is corruptible wasn’t used. But there’s enough that’s good here to give the picture the right-of-way. The performances are strong, with Mortimer anchoring things with a convincing turn as a morally torn woman caught up in terrible trouble; she’s nicely supported by Harrelson as her naively optimistic husband. Noriega catches Carlos’ two sides—seductive and dangerous—while Mara is good in the least well-drawn of the major roles. And Kingsley is his usual reliable self, appearing in what seems his umpteenth picture of the last three months. (He’s become so prevalent that you could repeat the question little John asks about the unstoppable Preacher in “The Night of the Hunter”—don’t he never sleep?) But as always, Kingsley’s an irresistible presence, and he certainly captures Grinko’s sense of menace beneath the jovial surface.
And the location shooting certainly brings an air of visual authenticity to the proceedings. The barren, frigid, alternately ugly and beautiful exteriors and convincingly shabby, tiny interiors create a “you are there” feel, and one has to congratulate production designer Alain Bainee and cinematographer Xavi Gimenez for their fine work under what must have been challenging conditions. Alfonso De Vilallonga’s atmospheric score is another plus.
The disappointing last lap means that “Transsiberian” doesn’t deserve a place among the classic train thrillers. But it offers enough cinematic amenities to be worth booking passage. And you won’t need a sleeping compartment.