Transsiberian (2008)

Directed by Brad Anderson

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Transsiberian is an odd little thriller, like an Alfred Hitchcock picture but filmed in the style of a Jason Bourne movie.  It feels a bit cheesy and melodramatic at first, if only because the inciting incident doesn’t truly happen until midway through the film.  From there it’s deeply unsettling, not in any overly disturbing manner but just in the sense that the walls close in quickly and that paranoia is at a ten.

The story is set predominantly on a train into Russia from China.  The two main characters are Americans Jessie and Roy (Emily Mortimer, Woody Harrelson), a married couple looking for some spontaneity in their lives.  Thanks to a couple inexplicable but I suppose plausible chance encounters Jessie finds herself an unexpected drug mule with a dead body to cover up.

The build up to the crime is quite awkward, but once we get to that point of no return the story moves swiftly and with great tension.  It’s a Hitchcock thriller in the sense that Jessie, the protagonist, is an ‘everyman’ thrust into extreme danger and intrigue.  She is deeply embedded, all of a sudden, in the drug trade world and amongst thieves and cops, some of whom aren’t exactly who they seem.  She is a feeder mouse tossed into tank of snakes.

The film works, despite its own absurdity, because it plays on what I think is a basic fear, of finding yourself in an environment with a new set of rules which, when broken, come with steep consequences.  Jessie is out of her element, not unlike the group of characters in Deliverance, wherein the rural countryside is something of a nightmare, full of comically insane evil and no discernible law and order.

Early on the characters (and the audience) are warned about Russian police and prisons, told by another train passenger who speaks of a tourist who refused to bribe the police and as a result had two toes removed.  If you take the slightest misstep or even just appear not to fall in line, then you can be pulled into oblivion and never heard from again, at least that’s what we’re told.

And then, of course, Jessie finds herself in just such a situation, when another passenger, Carlos, who reeks of chaos and happens to be smuggling heroin, decides to force himself upon her.  He is not meant to be understood and is often framed in a way to make him a predator.

After Jessie kills him in self-defense she is immediately cornered by a police officer (Ben Kingsley) who seems to know what she’s done, whether because of a sixth sense or because he knows something she doesn’t.  When she later discovers that Carlos had previously hidden the heroin in her bag she tries her best to get rid of the bag, though that won’t be so easy.

It’s easy to fall for the twists and turns of this film because you can’t help but put yourself in Jessie’s shoes.  You understand why this happened, you’ve seen the forces swirling together that led to this moment, but you also know how it looks to the outside.  This story and stories like it suggest that no matter our best efforts, sometimes chaos and evil come looking for us.

The tension comes in her efforts to squirm out of the situation, to try and avoid thinking about what’s happened.  It’s a real nightmare of a situation and provides for a deliriously exciting second half of the film.

My only complaint about the film has to do with the long build up to that moment.  Maybe the melodrama and character building is necessary, but it feels much too bloated and unimportant.  The less we know about Jessie, I think, the better the film works.  It’s effective as pure tension, not as any sort of character study.

Up Next: In the Tall Grass (2019), Phoenix (2014), The Parts You Lose (2019)

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