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Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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No Age - Everything in Between
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August 18, 2008
RATING: 8/10
Director Brad Anderson is subtlety incarnate. Having directed critically acclaimed productions running the genre gamut from romantic comedy (Next Stop Wonderland) to psychological horror (Session 9 and The Machinist), to gritty police dramas (Homicide and The Wire) and now his latest, Transsiberian, an edgy thriller, Anderson's body of filmic work has been extremely diverse, and consistently good. As a director, Anderson seeks only to tell the story already written. He avoids flashy camera tricks and effects, preferring to scout eye-catching locations and utilize a small cast of talented actors to convey a story's weight. The location in Transsiberian is the indescribably vast artic wasteland of the Trans-Siberian Railway and the claustrophobically close quarters of a train running that line. The cast includes Ben Kingsley, Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer - all of whom shine in this film about running away and the lies people tell to fool others and themselves.



The film begins powerfully with both escape and deceit. A couple, Harrelson and Mortimer, are in China on a Christian outreach trip. There is a noticeable tension between the two - Roy (Harrelson) seems genuinely interested in the church's work while Mortimer's Jessie seems more interested in the gorgeous photos she takes and the adventure of travel. With their missionary work at an end, the couple decides not to immediately fly back to their Iowa home, opting instead to take the 5000-mile rail journey to Moscow through the Siberian wilderness. Roy's character seems blindly optimistic about the journey, geeking-out constantly about his passion for trains, almost the quintessential American yokel abroad. Jessie on the other hand seems deeply pained and troubled, a turbulent constitution roiling just below her exterior of cool, worn with the look of someone who has seen more than enough of life's rough side. Soon after they board the train, the couple becomes intimate and as their encounter edges toward sex, a dilemma becomes clear: Roy suggests forgoing a condom, "leaving things to chance," but Jessie adamantly insists on using protection. The incident highlights the couple's off-kilter dynamic - Jessie is clearly not ready to make the level of commitment needed to have a family with Roy - and the intimate moment ends abruptly with both going to bed frustrated and emotionally separated. There is a clear sense that the two are headed in opposite directions on the same train; Roy has undertaken the lengthy, close-quarted train trip to be closer with his wife, while Jessie yearns to reconnect with personal freedom and her sense of adventure.



After their awkward moment of intimacy the pair encounters another couple on the train who seem to embody the antithesis of Roy and Jessie's quiet, rural life. This younger couple, Carlos and Abby, lead a transient existence - frequently mentioning their world travels and past experiences riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The two couples end up sharing a sleeping car, an arrangement in which Jessie's attraction to Carlos becomes clear. The two exchange secretive, sexually charged looks, and Carlos seems to represent a former wildness in Jessie, the very freedom and youthfulness she longs for. But Carlos also represents a dangerous side of her past, as he may be smuggling drugs. Things begin to really unravel after the train stops briefly before getting underway again with no Roy in sight - the last glimpse we see of him, he and Carlos are walking together near some abandoned trains. Realizing that Roy is missing Jessie approaches Carlos, who offers no explanation, and her attempts to find her husband on the train are further hampered by language barriers. Jessie's cool surface begins to crack; approaching sheer panic, she repeatedly asks for help only to be coldly refused time and again.



The plot twists in Transsiberian are incredibly realistic. There are no over-the-top heroics, the action sequences are kept to a minimum, and what violence does make it onto the screen has real and horrific consequences. Anderson worked diligently to keep implausibility to a minimum, and his efforts paid off - identifying with Jessie's panic and Roy's naivety is very easy. Viewers are left feeling increasingly cold throughout the film - trapped on a train, thousands of miles from home, friendless and alone. After Roy's disappearance, Carlos begins to push Jessie into more and more intimate and dangerous situations, heightening the sense of isolation.



The rest of the film crashes toward its conclusion with an inevitability, much the same way that the train can only follow its track. Gorgeous, serene overhead shots of the train cutting a path through a snowy forest break the tension packed tightly into the cramped train cars below. By the time that Ben Kingsley's detective (introduced briefly in the beginning) reenters the film the situation is at a boiling point and Jessie is melting down. Kingsley's character senses Jessie's panic and pounces like a ravenous dog. If there is a moral to Anderson's film it is that lies can indeed weave wicked webs, traps that can ultimately become inescapable - especially when dealing with Russian law enforcement.

Transsiberian is a modern thriller that nods to historical genre classics by Hitchcock, Polanski and Kubrick. Like those lionized directors, Brad Anderson knows how to make the most, or in this claustrophobic case, the least, of each shot, each scene and each space. There is no privacy onboard the train and also no safety for anyone who gets off it. The train has one inevitable destination and, for viewers willing to take the ride, the conclusion to Transsiberian is both satisfying and thought provoking.

TRAILER: www.apple.com/trailers/independent/transsiberian

--
Jon Burke
A contributing writer and a Chicago resident who will not be goaded by LASís editor into revealing any more details about his potentially sordid affairs.

See other articles by Jon Burke.

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