Woody Harrelson’s one of those actors who I’d say still holds movie star status, without starring in very many big movies. Sure, there’ was the box office success abomination Now You See Me. But more often than not, if Harrelson’s taking a starring role, it’s in smaller, off the radar stuff, like Rampart, or The Messenger, or, Transsiberian.
After some sort of charity work with their church group in China, Jessie (Emily Mortimer) and Roy (Woody Harrelson) board a train in Beijing, to take the seven day titular trip to Moscow. On day two, they meet cabin mates Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara). A little more exotic and outgoing than Jessie and Roy, it’s obvious that Carlos and Abby might be involved in something just a little sinister.
When Roy misses getting back on board the train after a stopover in the middle of nowhere, the mystery of Carlos and Abby starts to get a little more sinister. Waiting in a seedy hotel for news of her husband, Jessie starts to revert to some bad girl ways that she alluded to earlier. Eventually, Jessie’s involvement with Carlos gains the attention of Ben Kingsley as Grinko, a Russian drug cop whose motives are just as muddy as everyone else’s in Transsiberian.
I can’t remember another recent movie that turns from light to dark as quickly, or as extremely as Transsiberian. Always playing its cards close to its chest, every time you think you know what a character is all about, something will happen to make you second guess everything you’ve already seen. It’s a slow burn for so much of its running time, but once that fuse reaches the explosives, all hell breaks loose and the consequences of everyone’s actions catch up with them in no time. With devastating results for pretty much everyone.
It’s a real ensemble piece with everyone getting big moments and important scenes that keep this movie ticking along, but the biggest cog in this machine is Mortimer. Woody Harrelson gets the odd piece of comic relief from his gee-whiz, wide eyed goofy enthusiasm. He also gets to play that same character for some real tragedy when he starts to realise the gravity of the mess he and his wife are in.
Noriega plays Carlos in a way that impressively makes you pretty sure he’s a bad guy with something to hide, but never quite positive. Kate Mara perfectly rides the balance between possible innocent naïf under Carl’s spell, and possible mastermind. And Kingsley gets to chew the shit of the scenery with his tick Russian accent and probing eyes.
But Emily Mortimer gets the meatiest role, and makes the most out of it. Flipping the script and making the wife the more active character when things start to go south, Transsiberian makes Jessie a welcomely surprising hero, while Roy is more of a deer in the headlights. It’s a take on what could have been a standard thriller plot that makes sure the audience is never on sure footing and always a little at the mercy of the movie’s tension.
It’s a movie that I feel must have come and went with very little fanfare at the time. I’d never even heard of it before and knew nothing going in. Maybe I was just out of the loop on this and the last person to get on board Transsiberian (see what I did there?). If it did come and go with few people noticing, that’s a real shame, because this is a unique movie that can’t really be compared plot point by plot point to dozens of others. And we don’t get enough of that kind of originality these days.