Entering a genre as crowded as thrillers is such a dauntingly tough task. Not only do you have to make a good movie it has to be sufficiently and interestingly different from the rest just to gain interest enough for viewers to wish to watch it.
Brad Anderson directed The Machinist and that really was a film to bend the psyche. An emaciated Christian Bale with a guilt ridden, drawn out and overly dark storyline, Brad proved he could certainly manipulate the best and stew the suspense. He's at it again here but he's left out any excess of psyche in order to stick to a far more accessible version of a thriller - good move Brad.
Take an ordinary couple, stick them on a train and add a bit of murder mystery into it and there you have it. Sounds like run of the mill stuff? Yes, for the most part you'd be right but surprisingly this movie has a bit of the odd sparkle about it.
There's an American couple that's central to it all here, Roy and Jessie and they are played by Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer respectively. Playing a pretty straight nerdy bloke with a strong religious conviction is someway off his beaten track but Harrelson plays the part well. I must admit I'm no particular fan of his and a film does not beg for me to watch it purely for his inclusion or acting abilities. Emily Mortimer, on the other hand is a bit of a newcomer on me but I was suitably impressed by her rather creditable performance, as well you might also be after watching this. She plays his wife and comparatively speaking she's not been brought up as devoutly as her husband. It's no bad thing as it makes her the more worldly wise of the two and it enables her to engage in the many compromised situations that soon follow.
Having just completed a missionary program in China the couple decide to travel from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Express. Roy being a keen fan of trains, it's a nice way to add some closure to there travels as well as add a bit of adventure. It's a long old journey across the wintery plains of Siberia and the claustrophobia of an enclosed train, travelling in a singular compartment keep the film focussed in building an artificially increasing level of suspense.
Actually what Brad Anderson has done rather cleverly here is to take a conventionally thinking couple and put them into a highly controlled and isolated environment. This kind of dictates and limits there interaction with the people around them and having to be involved with those who they may not normally wish to associate themselves with. As you can imagine there are not many English speaking travellers on the train and by adding one other couple into the proceedings naturally gives rise to the two pairs becoming travelling partners.
Enter a chap called Carlos played by Eduardo Noriega and his girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara). These two are far younger, unmarried and a little bit more risqué than their travelling companions. Unsurprisingly it's not long before the mix between the couples starts to push the subtle boundaries of over familiarity. Carlos's machismo soon senses that Jessie maybe attracted to him. It's not exactly reciprocated as plainly so, though it is allowed to let brew.
What you will find here is that Emily's principles are gradually eroded through a very subtle yet constant attrition of attention. How can a woman resist such attention - unwanted or not? Eduardo Noriega generally has an intense look about him and that intensity of facial expression really adds spice to the thoughts that are running through his mind. It's a face that suggests something sinister is going on behind the mask but it's a face that also never gives anything away.
Brad Anderson pulls his second masterstroke here in that he accentuates the fact that being surrounded in a foreign land by unhelpful Russians can be a very lonely place. The situation forces the four of them to become more acquainted with each other through necessity rather than will. What it does is lend creditability to a realistic encounter between perfect strangers leading into becoming acquaintances. The mix between the couples however is never uncomfortably polarised or portrayed as being awkward. Even though Abby realises that her boyfriend is flirting with Jessie, Roy on the other hand remains completely oblivious and innocent to all around him.
Now the first half of this movie chugs and labours along pretty much like the train that they are aboard. Though that's not such a bad thing I have to say. Whilst the mystery aspect of the movie is certainly lacking in the first half, a clue as to what direction the movie will take sits in the very opening scenes.
Grinko is an ex-KGB detective and is played by Ben Kingsley. Right at the start of the film you see him in a shipyard investigating a murder upon a boat that had been carrying drugs. It's a fleeting opening scene but it won't take the Sherlock Holmes amongst you to work out that it is going to have a bearing on the story.
The dodgy Russian accent does Kingsley no favours and it certainly didn't convince me. Nevertheless he plays Grinko's character well enough although a bit too dark, distant and overly complex perhaps? You're kept guessing whether he's a good cop or bad cop throughout and the fact that he's ex-secret police adds an unnerving level of mystery and suspense. Add to that a cropped haired Thomas Kretchsmann to play his silent sidekick Kolzak and you really do have an unlikely police pairing setting afoot upon this train.
Well there's a reason why they come aboard and that is purely for the sad reason that the Trans-Siberian route is one undertaken by many to smuggle drugs in and out of Russia. Drug traffickers are known to pose as travellers when there purpose of being is anything other than for sightseeing. The two hardened policeman know how to target likely suspects and it's pretty immediate that they have there attention focussed upon these four. I'll leave you to use your own detective powers to fathom out which couple is not as they seem.
Brad Anderson's third masterstroke is that he draws it out for as long as possible before your suspicions begin to gain credence. There are a number of other happenings along the way which complicate the story and compromise those involved by which time Anderson has made everything feel so incredibly taut that it'll have your palms readily sweating and you having to wipe your brow. His final masterstroke is one that will make you feel by the end of it all how realistic and real the events of the film feel. It's a real hidden beauty of this film that the way the events unfold could happen to anybody and a perfect innocent can suddenly be drawn into rather compromised situations through no real fault of their own.
They say you don't know yourself until you are faced with a situation that really tests your mettle. Well there's enough in this movie to make you question what you would have done in the given situations. It all feels so very real. This film really has no right to be as good as it is, but it is. One to watch for sure and I would suggest you make some time to do just that.