Train of Thought
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Ben Kingsley
By Robert Patrick
The chilly, foreboding landscape beyond the Transsiberian train tracks is painted with broad strokes of snow, mystery, and elegiac tonalities in director Brad Johnson’s newest film. Wrapped in copious amounts of suspense and communicative tension, Transsiberian walks a path of boundless tension before it finally vaults into a full fledged carnal thriller.
Roy and Jessie (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer), an American couple ready to depart from Beijing after a humanitarian effort in the area, decide to travel on the legendary transsiberian train from China to Moscow in an effort to have one last adventure on their way home. Roy, from what we learn early on, is good natured but ultimately malleable. He knows that his marriage with the chain smoking Jessie is about to hit the rocks, no matter how diligently he tries to save it, but he keeps trying regardless of the potential outcome. Roy, stricken with unwavering self-doubt, teeters on emotional impotency, rendering him a naïve overachiever in his quest for his wife’s love. Jessie, on the other hand, is a headstrong photographer with a spotty past – one that was far more volatile than her husband’s meek beginnings. He owned a hardware store. She led a Jack Kerouac life until she was in her late twenties. These are our very different protagonists.
While traveling on the famed Transsiberian, Roy and Jessie meet a mysterious, but seemingly genteel, couple by the names of Carlos and Abby. Roy, more than Jessie, takes to their new cabin mates with enthusiasm and kindness, while Jessie conjures up suspicions about the backpackers.
At first, the conversational habitat of the condensed train forces our foursome to comply to feigned friendship. The incessant freeze of Russia’s winter air is a perfect backdrop for the underlying tension that permeates through each cold breath that drifts from our shadowy passengers. Carlos, while taking to Roy as a friend, begins a flirtatious game of cat and mouse with his wife, Jessie, that only becomes more lurid as time passes.
After a short time, things get worse for the married couple, as they are turned into unknowing drug mules by Carlos and Abby. This event is heightened in intensity as Grinko (Ben Kinglsey), a Russian narcotics agent, conveniently becomes the couple’s new cabin mates after the drug runners vanish, leaving Roy and Abby to fend for themselves.
Grinko’s long, weathered face tells us that he is an old tree with many rings – some of them KGB related. There is no doubt that he has questionable ties to the dark underbelly of Russian history. Grinko’s stone yet cordial demeanor pierces through our main characters as he tells them of his joy for the old U.S.S.R. regime. “It’s much better to live in the dark, than to die in the light” he tells his cabin mates. Clearly, there is some skeletons in his closet.
Here’s where Johnson’s keen eye as a director takes over. Utilizing the foreign terrain, and his characters’ shrouded agendas, Johnson saturates his film in steel grays and sleepy blues; colors that pour into the movie’s frames with mood and foreshadowing. The cinematography looks organic and cloudy. Barren rows of cracked tree trunks and fallen branches rise up from the snow like wooden fingers as the cars on the Transsiberian chug past them. This is a well of skepticism and loneliness that the director pulls from repeatedly in an effort to alienate our sense of safety. And guess what? It works.
Transsiberian is a cathartic journey that is not to be missed. Unique because it moves stealthily between action thriller and character drama, Johnson’s film is never insipid or boring, but instead alive and relevant. Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, and Ben Kingsley all deliver superb performances in this class A film.