A suspenseful Hitchockian course is charted by Transsiberian, which concerns the murderous intrigue that envelops American tourists Roy (Woody Harrelson) and wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer) while making the famous week-long Transsiberian train trek from Beijing to Moscow. Having just completed church-sponsored humanitarian work in China, train-loving do-gooder rube Roy is thrilled about the journey. The same can’t be said about Jessie, a former globetrotting wild child attempting, with varying degrees of success, to right her wayward impulses through marriage to Roy, an endeavor hopelessly mucked up by the couple’s chance encounter with dangerously seductive Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and his heavily eyelinered girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara).
Despite HD cinematography that can’t quite capture the ominous grandeur of the vast landscape through which the train travels, director Brad Anderson establishes a suitably portentous mood through claustrophobic staging and an overarching air of linguistic and cultural isolation. The story’s tension mounts gradually, but so too do disparate plot elements that never quite gel, from hanging references to Roy and Jessie’s nationality, to a bevy of excessively angry foreigners prone to growling or giving Yanks the cold shoulder, to superficially consequential maxims about truth, positivity and setting a life “route” delivered by Roy, Jessie and a suspicious Russian narcotics detective named Grinko (Ben Kingsley) with whom they eventually come into contact.
These sayings sound meaningful in the moment but never amount to much, as Transsiberian eventually reveals itself to be scatterbrained thematically, with any larger concerns—about seizing the day, the blithe insensitivity of Americans, or the amorality of a modern Russia where everything is a literal and figurative gray area—relegated to the background of straightforward thriller maneuverings. Fortunately, Mortimer’s performance ably conveys Jessie’s internal tug-of-war, a struggle that propels the narrative into ever more gripping regions, and Anderson keeps the anxiety levels high enough to obscure some not-entirely-convincing third-act choices made by his protagonist, as well as the general emptiness of the proceedings, which are finally epitomized by a government agent’s vacation advice: “Don’t you be talkin’ to strangers.”