August 31, 2009

'Transsiberian' Off Credibility Track

There's a reason few Hitchcockian films are as good as those directed by the master himself.

Take Transsiberian, for instance: director Brad Anderson's tale of an innocent American couple caught up in a world of cross-border drug smuggling and corrupt cops whilst traveling on the famed Trans-Siberian Railway. It's got all of the ingredients necessary to make a suspenseful film in Alfred Hitchcock's style. Except believability.

And that's the most important part.

The problems start with the depiction of the couple, played broadly by Woodly Harrelson and Emily Mortimer. Harrelson's Roy, a hardware store owner who finds himself and his wife Jessie in Russia after journeying to China on a charitable trip with his church, is gullible to the extreme. After "befriending" a bunch of people on the train (a process that invariably includes imbibing large amounts of alcohol), Roy carries a smile on his face that seems plastered (literally) on while gawking at the most unexciting sights--such as as slew of snow-strewn trains. He even exclaims, "I'm an American!" during one purportedly tense scene...a cry echoed in remembrances of stereotypical tourisms past. Meanwhile, Jessie is nearly as credulous, falling for the charms of a shabby, not-really-charismatic couple, Carlos and Abby, they meet on the train (played, respectively, by eye-candy actor Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara, in a particularly dour performance) and hanging out with them, often in the same cabin.

Well, I didn't buy it. This couple is traveling in another country, and they don't get the least bit concerned that their creepy, tiresome cabin mates--who alternate between acting amorously and argumentatively in full view of these strangers--scream "suspicious characters"? Surely they don't remain with these hangers-on solely because of their scintillating conversation? (Certain awkward scenes set in a restaurant support my suggestion that there's a "communication breakdown" effect that precludes any credible feelings of attraction among the parties.) It certainly isn't likely that Roy would confess the fact that he's having marital problems with Jessie to Carlos only a day or so after meeting him. And it's quite improbable that Roy would leave his wife for a day to go exploring without notifying her or giving her any means to contact him. (Perhaps their cell phones were edited out of the script.)

Still, the burden of credibility can't be placed entirely on the actors' shoulders. Anderson's direction is sloppy, like the script, which he co-wrote with Will Conroy. In addition, the suspense-on-a-train theme has been done so frequently (and so much better) that the whole flick seems derivative, like a cross between Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express...without the breathless excitement such cinematic journeys entail. Appearances by the usually fine Ben Kingsley and Thomas Kretschmann help somewhat, but in the end, Transsiberian is waylaid by an overly ambitious treatment that doesn't satisfy the viewer after building up a not-so-intense atmosphere. It's like waiting a half-hour for the subway and then discovering it's crowded and not air-conditioned.

My advice: Rent a Hitchcock instead.

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