Transsiberian tells a simple story about a man and a woman travelling from China to Russia on a train. They have cabin mates who are friendly people, and everything is fine for the two hours that the film is on-screen. There is no tension and no drama; it plays out like you are with these people travelling on a train. There’s a reason that going by train is cheaper than flying: Taking 7 days of your life is more boring than a few hours, and that is emulated perfectly in the film.
But wait just a minute! I lied about the majority of the last paragraph. The story isn’t simple, there is a lot of tension and drama, and it most certainly isn’t boring. Like the film, I opened off with deception. I wasn’t entertained very much by the first portion of Transsiberian. At least, I didn’t think I was while I was watching it. After it ended though, I’m not so sure.
I think I’ve come to the conclusion that the first part of the film–the beginning 20-30 minutes, I would wager–is necessary to sit through, even if it isn’t all that entertaining. If you don’t, you miss out on two things: The character development and a sense of atmosphere. We get to learn about the lead characters, (I didn’t lie about them in the first paragraph), and we begin to feel a sense of unease about the entire train trip.
The two people we follow the most are named Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer). They’re a couple who don’t travel much, so isn’t it just great that their cabin mates are season adventurers? It’s just a little too coincidental for my tastes, but that’s the point. We’re not supposed to feel like these people are safe to be around, even when our leads are beginning to befriend them.
We begin to learn about the backgrounds of Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara), the other couple. Through multiple conversations with the Roy and Jessie, we learn about each of the four characters. These types of discussions dominate the first hour or so of the film, which, while sometimes boring, gives us a good deal of reason to care about these people. They’re realistic and relatable, which means that when things turn sour, we want the characters to make it through.
And like grapes, they do turn sour, especially once Jessie does something that will plague her for the rest of the film. She has good reason to do it, and likely shouldn’t feel guilty about it, but she does. It haunts her, and drives her actions after the fact. You won’t see this action coming, and I will not spoil it. Suffice to say that it is shocking. Not as shocking as a scene later on in the film that will make you turn away because of how disturbing it is, but shocking nonetheless.
Also making an appearance is Ben Kingsley, who plays a Russian detective. He shows up in the very first scene of the film, investigating a crime scene. He doesn’t appear again until much later, almost late enough for you to forget that he exists, but not quite. Without even speaking a word of English, (well, maybe one), he leaves an impression on the viewer so that when he appears on the train later on, you recall the previous time you saw him, and things start to click together.
Of course, it won’t all make sense until the end, that’s how great thrillers work. What’s odd about Transsiberian is that while the plot doesn’t make complete sense until the end–what a character’s true intentions are won’t necessarily be clear, for example–the overall plot is still really easy to follow and won’t leave you confused. You will follow along with Roy and Jessie as they head towards Moscow on the train, even when nothing feels right around them.
There’s a moment fairly early on when the train stops for some time. The males and females split off and have some bonding time. Abby and Jessie have a girl-to-girl talk about their life before meeting their current partner, while Roy and Carlos talk about trains and Roy’s current relationship. After brushing off one comment, Roy goes off-screen to look at something else. Carlos, with a devilish look in his eyes, begins to follow. We cut out, and next see Jessie frantically looking for her husband on the now-moving train. He didn’t board it, we find out, and our suspicions immediately turn on Carlos. To me, this is a brilliant moment, as it makes us turn on a character that we’ve grown to like, and also introduces the first real tension the film has, something it will carry until its runtime runs its course.
Transsiberian gets off to a slow start, but its something you’ll just have to endure. You’ll understand by the end of the film why you have to endure it. You need that amount of time with the characters to make anything that happens later on in the film matter. You’ll end up caring about them a great deal, which makes one of the latter scenes incredibly difficult to endure. It’s certainly a thrilling film, and one that I would suggest watching.