Married couple Roy (Woody Harrelson), a train enthusiast, and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) have spent some time in China performing Christian works, but now it is time to come home and Roy being the locomotive aficionado he is insists on taking the Trans-Siberian Railway across China, Siberia and Russia to get back to Europe and ponder a return to their native United States. However, they find security pretty tight there thanks to the amount of illegal drugs runners who transport their wares on the train, and when they get friendly with backpackers Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara), Jessie begins to wonder about their motives...
The spirit of Alfred Hitchcock hovered noticeably over Transsiberian, one of the forays into film from prolific television director Brad Anderson, who favoured the novel twist on genre material for his big screen efforts, though they could be accused of being more successful in concept that execution. Here, on the other hand, was a modest but perfectly serviceable thriller which kept its cards close to its chest, prompting the audience into guessing what was on the level and what was not to be trusted, as it turned out there was only one character who either didn't have a secret to hide or didn't have the capacity for some very bad behaviour. Anderson and his cast did very well to keep us in that dark as to the truth of that for as long as they did.
Jessie (Mortimer was really our lead) is hard to work out at first, as we're not clear on why she is hanging around with the almost comically square Roy, or if indeed she shares his faith or is simply humouring him for her own reasons. How did these two even get married, you ask, although that is revealed when she refuses a drink of vodka offered by Carlos, and we begin to see that she is an ex-addict who her husband saved from a life of degradation, therefore she has a lot to thank him for. But will that keep her on the straight and narrow? Much of the plot, scripted by Anderson and Will Conroy, looks dead set on leading her into temptation, as not everyone is as determined to be as good as Roy, and Jessie could be headed for a relapse when Carlos increasingly resembles the devil in disguise.
Just as you think that is what the drama will entail, you recall Ben Kingsley. What was he doing there at the start, investigating a murder somehow related to the heroin trade? You'll be assuming he's going to show up once again, and you'd be right, representing Jessie's guilt when she goes further than she should have done, thereby heating up that ice cold landscape the train is travelling through as Anderson tightened the screws on his female protagonist. You can appreciate the echoes of Hitchcock favourites as they emerge - a bit of Strangers on a Train here, a spot of The Lady Vanishes there, even elements of the structure of Psycho if you're willing to go that far, which does mean Transsiberian comes across as more homage than its own beast. Also it paints a dubious picture of Russia if you're not willing to buy what happens as a set-up of paranoia of a tourist in a land where you don't speak the language, but such was the style of many a thriller therefore that could be forgiven. As there was a well-crafted flair to what was on offer, you could easily go along with the implausibilities when the results were so amusing, even tense. Music by Alfonso Vilallonga.
American writer and director who made the comedies Next Stop Wonderland and Happy Accidents, before scoring a cult hit in 2001 with the horror Session 9. The similarly spooky The Machinist and solid Hitchcockian thriller Transsiberian followed before television took up most of his time.