The famous title train in Brad Anderson's Transsiberian runs from Beijing to Moscow and crosses through some pretty remote, snowy terrain; it's a great place for something devious and sinister to happen. Finishing up with a church mission in Beijing, simple, happy train nut Roy (Harrelson) and his wife, photographer and reformed “bad girl” Jessie (Mortimer) hop the Transsiberian Express. They meet a young backpacking couple, Abby (Mara) and Carlos (Noriega). Carlos flirts with Jessie a little, and Roy disappears at a train stop. Meanwhile, a Russian narcotics detective (Kingsley) checks a crime scene after a drug deal gone bad (a frozen corpse sits bolt upright at a table).
From there, the film uses expert sleight-of-hand to juggle drugs, murder and various shades of villainy at the exact right times. Even if you've seen lots of movies of this type and can figure out exactly what's going to happen, Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist) takes great pleasure in the pure form and execution of it. But Transsiberian is no mere copy. The film spends at least a reel on—get this—developing the characters! By the time the trouble starts, we know all about Roy and Jessie, what they mean to each other and what's at stake. That Jessie, rather than the usual male character, becomes the film's driving force is a refreshing idea; she's far richer and more deeply developed than most thriller heroines, and Mortimer comes away with the film's most mesmerizing performance (Kingsley's great Russian accent notwithstanding).
Transsiberian also uses its atmosphere to great effect. On the train, the characters fight for space and privacy, and any number of cranky Russians are ready to bark at them for transgressions unknown. Anderson further ramps up the tension by filtering sugary American pop tunes into the cabins. This small, shoulder-to-shoulder space then explodes into the great, white open during the film's second half: snow, sky and cold, as well as spidery tree branches and crumbling, cavernous buildings. In essence, Anderson gives us a smooth, Hitchcockian ride, while at the same time derailing expectations.