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Transsiberian

Okay: here comes the "H" word. I can't remember using it before, at least as I'm going to use it now: Transsiberian is not only the scariest movie that I've seen in 2008 (if not since even longer ago), but it is also the only halfway recent movie that has compared equably with the work of Alfred Hitchcock. I'm not going to push that comparison by enumerating the ways in which Brad Anderson's film is like Hitchcock's films. All I'm going to do with regard to the "H" word, in fact, is to use a word that Hitchcock himself wouldn't have touched: "existential." Never mind: his films are great because their existential quality is unsurpassed. No one has ever better captured the everyday anxiety of life, something that most of us rightly feel as a kind of tedium. By connecting it to crime and suspense, Hitchcock made it very interesting. Brad Anderson does much the same thing in Transsiberian. Only when he has brought his story to an unbearably anxious pitch does he introduce the violence of guns and thugs.

The film begins at the scene of a crime, but that is by way of a curtain raiser. The real beginning is the moment in which Jesse (Emily Mortimer), a thirty-something American wife on her way home from a charitable junket in Beijing (she and her husband have been "helping kids" in a program sponsored by their Iowa church), contemplates a billboard-sized map of the Transsiberian Express's route, from the Chinese capital to the Russian. That this poster is boldly and incorrectly entitled "All Abroad" introduces a note of misgiving that the viewer can share: a mistake is one thing; a mistake in very large letters, so confident about itself, is another. Jesse's husband, Roy (Woody Harrelson), is a choo-choo fan, a hardware-store owner with a layout in his basement and a passion for the real thing that makes the prospect of seven days of dubious accommodations a boy's own adventure.

If Jesse has reservations about the railroad journey, it's not because she's a latter day Phoebe Snow. Rather the reverse. We'll learn, well before we're into the second hour, that Jesse was rescued by Roy from a lifestyle best described as self-destructive. The Transsiberian Express, it's clear, too closely resembles the venues of her wanton youth. There is a lot of drinking. People are thrown too closely together. The passengers' easy camaraderie is something that Jesse has learned to put aside. If he were not so understandably adorably blinded by his interest in trains, Roy would see in an instant that the compartments and the dining car of the Transsiberian Express are not the place for his wife.

Even before Jesse and Roy start passing time with their compartment-mates, Amy (Kate Mara) and Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), then, we have been marinated in Jesse's discomfort. Mr Anderson's ability to pull this off without resorting to well-worn cues is one of the things about Transsiberian that most forcefully reminds me of Hitchcock. Another is the virtuosity with which he traps Jesse in the flypaper of his plot. Because he has articulated her vulnerability so beautifully, this takes longer than we think it will. We expect that Jesse will be screwed long before she's in actual danger. That is a third Hitchcock hallmark. Hitchcock is often, and rightly, thought of as a master of suspense. But his suspense works very differently from everyone else's: it flows from telling the audience almost everything, and then waiting for events to catch up.

My discussion must either fold here or wade into spoiler territory that, for once, I am almost spiritually determined to avoid. It remains only to say that Ben Kingsley, as a Russian detective called Ilya, rounds out this knockout cast. Knockout casts small ensembles of amazingly gifted actors are another Hitchcock signature. Everyone in Transsiberian is excellent I'm thinking of the hotel manager (Perlis Vaisieta), but of course Thomas Kretschmann must be hailed at least for his way with chewing gum. But Ms Mortimer, Ms Mara, Mr Harrelson, Mr Noriega, and Mr Kingsley are not only astonishing, but astonishing with regard to one another. There are no star turns in this movie. Even Emily Mortimer's horrified ordeal is a constant reminder of her colleagues' performances. Instead of the usual litany, I will say only that it is very exciting to watch Kate Mara (who has been made up to look strangely Sixties, with pale lipstick and heavy eye shadow) advance to the kind of challenge of which she has long promised (Random Hearts, Tadpole, Brokeback Mountain) to be capable. Her costars differ only in having already had the chance to surprise us, some of them (Mr Harrelson and Mr Kingsley) again and again and again. Brad Anderson keeps them at it. (September 2008) 

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