In the years since 9/11, there's been an influx of movies exploiting American fears of traveling overseas, but nothing quite like Brad Anderson's Transsiberian, which owes as much to the internal dynamics of a marriage as it does to the problems of strangers in a hostile land. Anderson takes a twist-filled story that could be fodder for thrillers of many stripes and connects it to a stark, isolating, beautiful backdrop that makes it seem particular and fresh. Inspired by the writer-director's own post-college trip on the famed Trans-Siberian railway, which stretches from Beijing to Moscow, the film feels like a story idly devised on a long stretch of track; it's easy to imagine Anderson mixing personal material with the strange faces and sights he encountered along the way.
As the film opens, American couple Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer are getting on the train from Beijing, where they've just participated in a church-based humanitarian mission. The two couldn't be more different: He's gregarious and almost relentlessly upbeat, she's introverted and tough to read, much happier taking photographs alone than socializing with people. As Harrelson and Mortimer get on each other's nerves, another attractive couple (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara) turn up as their new bunkmates and drive a deeper wedge between them. The two couples initially have fun boozing and trading stories, but Mortimer is smitten with the handsome Noriega, whom she knows dangerously little about. Meanwhile, Russian narcotics detective Ben Kingsley is investigating a drug-related homicide, and he takes a keen interest in the foursome's activities.
Though Harrelson's name is first in the cast list, Transsiberian belongs to Mortimer, who digs into a complicated character who seems decent and trustworthy, but often acts out of ruthless self-interest when the pressure's on. While it piles on the hair-raising twists, the film is ultimately a morality tale about the devastating consequences of people not taking responsibility for their actions. And though Anderson's storytelling gets murky at times, it's still a fine showcase for his versatility, adding to an impressive, under-the-radar résumé that includes the underrated science-fiction comedy Happy Accidents and the first-rate horror film Session 9. Hopefully, his latest won't also get cast into the ether.