' ' Cinema Romantico: Transsiberian

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Brad Anderson's thriller set (mostly) on a train as it chugs through the bleakness of eastern Russia creeped me out, even though the movie is far from excellent, and I'm gonna tell you why.

Here's the skinny: an American couple, Jessie (Emily Mortimer) and Roy (Woody Harrelson), have been in China doing work for their church and Roy, who thinks that his wife thinks that he isn't adventurous enough, has booked passage on a transsiberian train so they can do a little sight-seeing in Moscow. He is a train enthusiast (I thought Harrelson did the best job in the film). She used to be a, shall we say, Bad Girl, who now only smokes and never drinks. Their bunkmates on the train come in the form of a couple of wayfaring strangers, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara). He is vivacious. She seems to have a past with which Jessie can connect. But Jessie also connects with Carlos. Perhaps a bit too much. And soon enough a Russian cop (Ben Kingsley) will figure into the whole ordeal.

The film has some issues, no question. For starters, there are way too many Is This Ominous Or Isn't This? moments. As in, Carlos, who may be a good guy or may not be, will be acting all friendly with his new American pals and then suddenly we hear a minor chord on the soundtrack and his smile turns into a foreboding grimace and so we think, "Hmmmmm....maybe all is not as it seems." This happens - I'm estimating here - 244 times. God, I hate that crap.

Second, the third act devolves into a big action setpiece that feels to have happened at the request of the film's financial backers. Plus, all the strands at the end get tied up too neatly.

Still, though, some of the early passages of the movie creeped me out because, like Alfred Hitchcock, I think suspense always plays better than action. It's why my two favorite horror films are still "The Blair Witch Project" and "Alien", and why my least favorite parts of "Alien" are the last ones where Sigourney Weaver does battle with the Alien itself. But "Transsiberian" has something else going for it. The movie belongs to a genre the esteemed author Chuck Klosterman has termed "'Nobody Believes Me' movies....They are narratives in which something terrible happens to the main character (such as having his wife kidnapped), but everyone the character tries to notify assumes he's insane. Whenever I watch a movie like this, I get nervous. I always feel like I'm about to vomit." I'm with you, Mr. Klosterman. "Nobody Believes Me Movies" give me the willies.

Imagine, if you will, me - played by, let's say, Topher Grace at his most "That 70's Show"-ish - locked away in some cavernous place in the middle of nowhere in the Russian countryside with a crazed Russian pointing a gun at me and hollering about drugs and money. Do you think I would have the werewithal to find a way out of this cavernous place? Especially if I was in the middle of Sibera with no shoes? (How the characters don't get frostbite when they don't have shoes is something....woah, now I'm sounding like one of those moviegoers I hate. Never mind.) Do you think I could then get aboard a train and figure out how to get the thing up and running?

The answer: No. Absolutely not. I'm done. And so is my wife. We're buried in the snow and no one sees us again.

If I'm Kurt Russell in "Breakdown" do you really think I can drive my car into a raging river and survive? Stare down the barrel of a gun? Dangle precariously from the back of a semi? Nope. Sorry, Kathleen Quinlan, but no one knows what happens to you. J.T. Walsh wins.

If I'm Harrison Ford in "Frantic" and I get out of the shower and my wife is gone do you really think I'm capable of scouring the streets of Paris to find her? I call the authorities, report her missing, maybe put up some fliers, end up drinking my sorrows away at the corner tavern, and never see my wife for the rest of my life.

Maybe that's the idea. A remake of "Frantic" with Topher Grace. "Guys? Has anyone, like, seen my wife? Guys? Help?"

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