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Sundance Review: ‘Transsiberian’ Is Gritty, Intense At Times

The Machinist director Brad Anderson spins a web of deception in this intense drama about traveling abroad.
By  · Published on July 18th, 2008

Editor’s Note: Since Transsiberian is due out in theaters today, we have decided to re-post this review that was written during the Sundance Film Festival in January, to help refresh your memory. Also, we would recommend checking out our interview with director Brad Anderson.

If you have to ask yourself what it means when they say “Dramatic Competition” at the Sundance Film Festival, you may want to check out Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian, which has quite a bit to offer to audiences looking to get a little Americans in bad situations abroad tension in their lives.

The last time we saw Brad Anderson, he was directing Christian Bale in one of his more incomparable roles in The Machinist. With Transsiberian, Anderson gives us the tale of married couple Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) who are traveling from a church-led mission in China to Moscow along the Transsiberian railway. Along the way, they meet up with young freeloaders Carlos (Eduardo Noriega, The Devil’s Backbone) and Abby (Kate Mara, Shooter) who are traveling to Amsterdam. All seems to be going fine, but when Roy accidentally missed the train at one stop and is separated from his wife, all hell seems to break loose. Jessie soon finds out that Carlos and Abby aren’t your average tourists, but may be a pair of drug runners. Add to this the fact that a Russian Narcotics Agent (Ben Kingsley) is hot on their trail, and Jessie is forced to take action and try to survive as she and Roy are pulled deeper and deeper into a web of deception, violence and drug trading.

The real moral of the story here is that if you are an American tourist traveling through Russia, don’t trust anyone. The film delivers the very tense and often frightening reality of Roy and Jessie’s situation very well. It build throughout the entire film, leaving the audience engaged in how deeply the trouble will run. The cinematography is what really sells it, at least for me. Brad Anderson and cinematographer Xavi Giménez create a very grim, dirty vision of Siberia, drawing us into a country that was once alive, but is now dead and buried beneath six feet of corruption.

The performances were solid as well, with none more impressive than that of Emily Mortimer. As Jessie, she is forced to deal with some very intense situations and ends up trapped between the truth and finding a way to survive. It is an interesting character study, as we never know what we would do if we ended up trapped and in trouble in a place like old Russia. Woody Harrelson also delivers a good performance, shining through in the end as the goofy, but sometimes annoying Roy. His is in many ways a walking cliche, that born-again righteously oblivious midwestern American guy — and in this instance, that is ok. Eduardo Noriega is also creepily reminiscent of someone like Oliver Martinez in Unfaithful — creepy, smooth talking foreign dude who is just looking for a hole in which to stick it.

The films only downfall is that it begins to slow down about a third of the way through. In some ways it feels akin to Babel, but with a bit more intrigue and action toward the end. Well, to be completely honest, it is a lot more interesting than Babel, which bored me to death. To say the least, Transsiberian is worth a look for anyone who enjoys deep drama, an engaging story and a relatable situation — if you have ever tried to traffic drugs through the middle of Russia, that is.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)