Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer star in "Transsiberian," a white-knuckle trip set on an express train from Beijing to Moscow.
It may not immediately occur to you to hurry to a theater for an obscure independent film that Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer headline, with a title like “Transsiberian” that would grab neither a Travelocity agent nor a gender-reassignment patient.
But director Brad Anderson’s unpredictable thriller will make you as palpably uncomfortable as Billy Ray’s outstanding recent nailshredders, “Shattered Glass” and “Breach.”
Roy (Harrelson) is a Ned Flanders type who’s a little too loud, a little too friendly and a little too clueless about his surroundings away from the States. He’s just finished a church mission in China with his wife, Jessie (Mortimer), who’s not quite so into the mission, maybe not quite so into him, and whose firm teetotaling is just the tip of the iceberg of her Past.
Train-enthusiast Roy books them a long trip on the Transsiberian Express from Beijing to Moscow, and it’s no Orient Express in terms of luxury. It’s cramped, with toilets that don’t work, a surly crew and gnarly peasants who tell unsettling stories about the ordeals of tourists at the hands of brutal cops. A sketchy couple becomes their compartment roommates and buddies: Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), a handsome Spanish bon vivant who blatantly leers at Jessie, and his girlfriend, Abby (Kate Mara), a sullen runaway from Seattle who’s significantly younger.
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Discomfort slowly builds as the couples become closer and drink more (except for Jessie) on the trip, and then one of the four goes missing after one of the train’s picturesque, snowbound stops.
What you need to know: Ben Kingsley shows up as a doggedly clever but ambiguously motivated Russian narcotics detective, and the tension and twists crank up to a harrowing level that’ll make you squirm as the stakes escalate. But I’ve seen too much of the plot given away in other reviews, and a lot of the movie’s effectiveness is letting it take you on its ride without supplying an itinerary. So I’ll offer a few travel tips instead:
• Don’t separate from the person you’re traveling with, even if the person is an annoying choo-choo-buff nerd.
• If you’re waiting for someone, stay put in your hotel.
• Just take a plane.
Comparisons to Hitchcock are warranted, not least because of the train. But unlike a typical Hitchcock everyman who’s swept into a large, nasty predicament, Jessie — to the extent that she can control events — repeatedly says and does the wrong things, making an even worse mess to escape. Appearing recently as a fragile and high-strung lawyer in “Redbelt,” Mortimer has the range to sell Jessie as a complex character, though, not a stupid and unsympathetic one.
Wherever you stand on Harrelson, in my experience he’s spot on as the irritating Yank traveler. And Kingsley shows just the right restraint, not hamming it up with a Mr. Chekhov accent.
If you can look past a big finish that goes further than it needs to and ties things up a little too neatly, it’s a first-class white-knuckle trip.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259