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Movie Review: Transsiberian

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Bespectacled—his stringy blond hair growing progressively thinner and less plentiful like a criminally neglected (Ch-ch-ch) Chia Pet—47-year-old Woody Harrelson is the locomotive-loving, God-fearing Roy. Lucky for him, he’s traveling by iron horse across a picturesque, snow-covered Russian Siberian landscape with his wife. They’re heading to Moscow following a church missionary trip in China. Roy’s a sincere do-gooder, the kind of guy that owns that most wholesome of vanishing American small business:  a helpful hardware store. Fact is, he’s a boring gent that you wouldn’t expect to find knee deep in international intrigue. When ill-boding events inevitably chug full-speed ahead, it’s not that it’s terribly contrary rooting for a grown male protagonist with a model train set in his basement, as it is flatly aseptic.

Leaning on the cinematic cornerstone that has ordinary schmucks caught in extraordinary circumstances, director/co-writer Brad Anderson’s story-rub rests in the mysterious shroud that is Mrs. Roy’s—Jessie (Emily Mortimer)—checkered past. The childless couple met by accident when she hit him head on with her car. She was drunk. Still restless, she’s trying to abstain from alcohol through the foggy plumes of tobacco smoke emanating from her lungs. The (young) Demi Moore look-alike is struggling to turn the page on her party-girl past. She loves Roy, but we’re not quite sure if she’s running to something or away from it?

Reassured by the company of English-speaking journeyers, Roy and Jessie make acquaintances with fellow diesel cabin-mates Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and his girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara). In a meteorologically and culturally cold country, time shared with like-minded travel companions seems too good to be true. It is. Spreading the international language of business, the free-wheeling pair claims to be between gigs teaching English in Japan.

Harmless sightseeing is disrupted when, during a layover, Roy, after failing to
re-board, gets unwittingly left behind by his wife and newfound buddies. Translation: Roy’s uninteresting and birdbrained. A pensive Jessie waits in the next town’s depot for him to be located. Carlos, sensing opportunity to spend some quality alone time with Jessie, sends Abby on an errand so as to conveniently suggest Jessie and he kill time waiting for Roy to catch up by visiting a local historic church.

Getting the idea that Carlos isn’t your run-of-the-mill English instructor?—follow your instinct. Isolated with Jessie in a rural Siberian village, he forces himself on her in a most unappealing manner. She’s not having it, in ways that Carlos could not have imagined. She defends herself by hitting the formerly handsome Spaniard over the head with a wooden board—repeatedly. Carlos is d-e-a-d.

Though fairly handy with impromptu weaponized lumber, it’s quickly apparent that whatever her cryptic past, Jessie is no sociopath. Genuinely traumatized, she becomes downright frantic about her homicidal secret when she learns, after relieved-ly reuniting with Roy on the train, that Carlos is a drug dealer. How does she know? She’s discovered that he stashed a plethora of heroin in her luggage, only to be noticed by her once back on the train. Yikes!

Fateful vice and law loom. Disposing of the smack on the track without Roy’s, or anybody else’s wandering eyes, proves challenging 58 minutes down the railway, especially when Roy gleefully introduces her to their new cabin-mate Grinko (Ben Kingsley). The Russian is a bearded narcotics officer—or is he?—that looks KGBish with a shapka (“Boris” fur hat) sitting atop is domed head. It’s official. Jessie’s having the worst day of her life within the confines of the leading contender for most woebegone-titled movie of 2008.

Performances, and especially (aerial) outdoor cinematography (filmed in wintertime Lithuania), are copasetic, minus Harrelson’s retro dimwitted—Woody Boyd (Cheers)—“ah shucks” reincarnation. Sometimes nice guys should finish last. It makes the heavy, well, heavy.

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