It is not always a mystery why some films manage to creatively avoid widespread distribution. Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian, a mix of travelogue, relationship drama, Runaway Train, and Renny Harlin’s hilariously anti-Russian Born American, doesn’t fit into a specific category. The movie is well made, has terrific, snowy photography, and its minimal ambitions are an asset. Perhaps it was betrayed by its B-level cast, Woody Harrelson (do you think he has to reserve an extra seat at a restaurant for his various wigs? “I’ll need a seat for myself and a +1”) and the realistically plain looking Emily Mortimer as a couple of churchy Americans do-gooding across Asia. As they train through Russia, they meet two better looking than them backpackers (never trust good looking people in a thriller) and a tense friendship results. The contrivances that follow include Ben Kingsley as a Russian detective, heroin, a deluge of Russian dolls, and my personal favorite visual, bloody snow.
The bloody snow is where the thriller aspects kick in, deflating the paranoid feeling of the first forty-five minutes, which had really gotten that “you are in a country which controls you” feeling, before settling into drug smuggling nonsense. You’d think that these generic elements would help the movie appeal to a wider audience, but the film is mostly downbeat and depressing, and the action limited. There’s also an unfortunate lack of fighting on top of the moving train, a staple of the genre.
So what exactly went wrong? Nothing in particular, and maybe that’s the issue. It isn’t a great film but it doesn’t pander… Mostly. A compromised ending that ties everything up and feels tonally wrong with the rest of the film destroys the tension of what had been a far-fetched but tense thriller. One hopes they could have ditched this concession and replaced it with a darker closing note. A nasty kick might have distinguished it from the pack of high visibility DTV titles.