Sunday, September 14, 2008
Transsiberian chronicles the unsteady and questionable progression of its maker, Brad Anderson, whose last feature film was 2004's The Machinist. That film's tagline read, “How do you wake up from a nightmare, when you're not asleep?” Anderson, with this pan-Russo train thriller, returns to the world of nightmares, though unlike that mercurially wrought piece of Kafkaesque and insular introspection, which truly did play like something of a particularly effective, extended Twilight Zone episode, buoyed by a fierce and rail-thin Christian Bale, Transsiberian takes on a more quotidian and straightforward storyline for its tale of lonely, grueling terror. Judging by Anderson's Happy Accidents, which played like a romantic dream, perhaps a phantasma belonging to Wong Kar-Wai, and The Machinist, which on its own limited terms may have sprung from a listless David Lynch reverie, Anderson is animated by the treacherous realm of the mind.
If it sounds as though Anderson's technique may exhibit indubitable potential while his greater vision is precarious and debatable, then at least he seems to know what he's going after. Transsiberian, however, does not so much aid in enlarging Anderson's scope, even if it would seem as though considerably more money was probably spent, what with all the effects involving a train, as it potentially grounds his concerns in the more traditional trappings of a Hitchcockian neo-noir. The results are at best mixed, or at least they are until the film begins to erode in its final reel, almost becoming the foreign-financed and -originated indie version of Flightplan, another movie that commenced as a skillfully and subtly cunning woman-in-peril thriller that succumbed to the paroxysmal spasms and throes of melodramatic convolution and excessive plotting that blankets the audience in dreary ennui.
And, dreary, this film is. Transsiberian stars Emily Mortimer (“Jessie”) and Woody Harrelson (“Roy”) as an American married couple working as missionaries in China. Jessie, we gradually learn, used to be a “bad girl,” suffering from chronically ruinous relationships and addictions before literally crashing into Roy—she drunkenly drove her car into his in a head-on collision as an indirect way of meeting cute—and now she is trying her best to sustain herself on good deeds and Roy's obliviously clueless but alluringly harmonious innocence and intimate stature as a borderline pollyanna. Harrelson seems game for his role, though there are limits as to what his character is given to do, and it is Mortimer, who remains strong throughout, who assumes the role of the protagonist almost instantly. (Harrelson's Roy seems quite ineffective, an unlikely hero, though he does strangely show up whenever the screenplay needs a man to take over and accomplish certain things that seem to be outside Jessie's grasp or strength capacity. At first this seemed like a possible commentary on the male-female symbiosis in thrillers such as these, but finally it seemed like just another example of same.) Like many married American couples abroad in the world of the silver screen, however, their union is suffering from problems. Roy and Jessie are finding themselves emotionally drifting away from one another, and while he desires to open the possibilities of having a child with Jessie, a prospect for which Jessie does not care at this time. Roy's brainstorm medicine for their ailing partnership takes the shape of their trip to China, and his insistence that they take the Trans-Siberian train from China to Moscow, motivated as it is by his concern for their marriage, ironically placing he and his wife in the crosshairs of the pitilessness of fate and misfortune.
What Transsiberian may represent for Anderson, then, is the augmentation of his apparently budding theme of guilt that possessed the very soul of The Machinist. Jessie's guilt of feeling as though she does not deserve Roy's slightly grating and sometimes baffling naivete and goodness is particularly unnerving. When confronted with a younger, earthier, brusquer and handsomer man of mystery, a Spaniard named Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), traveling on the Trans-Siberian with his redhead American girlfriend (Kate Mara) and sharing a compartment she initially seems repulsed by the liberalness of Carlos' wandering eyes and suggestive glances, but eventually she warms up to his smoldering and seductive persona. Excavating certain themes from The Machinist, Anderson aims squarely at the selfishness of individuals too preoccupied by their own interests to care about those impacted as a consequence. Unlike that film, however, Transsiberian advances this single interest with greater thematic import, balancing the struggle in a familial dichotomy (Roy's abstract concept of a future family serving both as goal and ideal) against the roguish sensuousness represented by the untrustworthy Carlos. Like Fritz Lang's Clash by Night, the stage is set for a reversal of noir tropes: the hapless dupe, here given life by Harrelson, loses the supposedly long-tainted, morally self-doubting vixen to the masculine potency of the shady but carnally inviting and enticingly licentious figure. Unlike Lang's picture, however, the feminine force here is not a decisive, powerful figure but rather a woman seemingly trapped in perpetual adolescence and miserable fluctuations between self-pity and self-loathing, characterized by gratefulness towards Roy while simultaneously feeling mostly repressed resentment.
Throw in a brooding, cagey and menacingly omnipresent Russian narcotics officer interested in a shipment of heroin that is probably on its way westward on the same train as the two couples (an effectively unsettling and glowering Ben Kingsley), and it is almost difficult to understand just why such a story, so gravid with latently unearthed possibilities and so well-acted primarily by Mortimer in the central performance, so figuratively—and literally—(yes, does one go there?) flies off the rails. What at first was a tense, slow-boil multi-character study morphs into a dissuasive and pedestrian crime picture, made lousily rote with an improbable chase scene and blasé twist that the film seems to resign itself towards with unremarkable laziness and disinterest. Diametrically winding down, Transsiberian feels more like a train that has simply crawled to a stop after building and building, concluding on a note of narrative ambiguity concerning the fate of a major character, perhaps vainly hoping it can hold on to at least some of the credibility it seemed to unreservedly boast as its own in the early scenes.
Anderson's film does persistently harbor that intangible je ne sais quoi of nightmarish neo-noir--perhaps at least in part due to the expert cinematography the two films share by Xavi Giminez, whose playful light-and-dark shows make even the more mundane scenes innate visual accomplishments--but unlike The Machinist, which, for all of its (rightfully rendered) eerie isolation and despair, managed to stay on its most truthful and unaccompanied course, like one in the soundless, reclusive wee hours, walking through the pitch black, dodging furniture and walls, wandering the halls, finally groping the refrigerator handle to illuminate the kitchen, Transsiberian's destination seems positively absurd, as though it found itself out in the street two blocks from home. Without delving into the particularities of the plot, morally, the characters are almost all left off the hook, allowed to roam free without much in the way of consequence or even just lasting impact. Yes, the characters have gone through the grind, but no one seems much wiser for it. When one character remarks, “I love you. That means no secrets,” the line carries with it substantial inadvertent ethical penetration and brief emotional registration, but the film's coda seems to gleefully reject such statements and beliefs as tediously foolish and obstructive.
Despite the uneasiness of the conclusion, this train thriller features moments of wit and sequences built upon teasing filmmaking schemes that induce greater suspense. A character picks up a possible weapon while speaking to another but Anderson allows the scene to undramatically conclude. That, in turn, allows greater suspense to swell when it the theoretically endangered character's disappearance is noted by others. The film's character-based mystery becomes finely puzzling, then more tantalizing on differing levels, and the tempered sagacity of the film's first half finally struggles with the impression of the second, bowing out for fear of piercing beneath the proverbial skin. Like a shy man engaging a smart and beautiful woman whose luminescence momentarily beckons greater investigatory curiosity at the risk of crippling cowardice in the face of such intensity, the film seems to find itself intrinsically outmatched, and almost unworthy of its own nascent dreams. Like that fellow consumed by timidity, the film stalls, sputters, waves goodbye to all that with angst-filled melancholy, and, yielding to the self-imposed limits that belie the bravery it must employ in other pursuits, goes about the ridiculous and shameful ritual of settling for less, perhaps for little at all.