The term "Hitchcockian" is one of those special terms that doesn't get thrown around the movie world as much as, oh, "Tarantino-esque," for one. Perhaps it's because the word rolls off the tongue nicer than any other filmmaker-homage term in the cinematic canon. Say it aloud. "Hitchcockian." Pretty sweet, yes? Perhaps it's just because there aren't that many people around who are as brilliant as Hitchcock was. I'd vote for both of those suggestions, if it were put to a vote, but the fact remains, it's rare to find a film that truly lives up to that title, and we absolutely have a film like that in Transsiberian.
What I like about the term "Hitchcockian" is that it seems it's one of those terms that doesn't imply the film is a rip-off, like a "Tarantino-esque" tag implies. To call a film "Hitchcockian" doesn't mean someone gets slaughtered in the shower, or is afraid of heights or scales Mount Rushmore. It means that the filmmaker simply understands the unique style Hitchcock brought to his films and, more importantly, can adapt that style into their own story in modern-day cinema. Brad Anderson is truly someone worthy of this title, and perhaps one of the only filmmakers around that is worthy.
This film is co-writer/director Brad Anderson's follow-up to the 2004 indie fav, The Machinist, a film that garnered much acclaim and just as much noteriety for Christian Bale's near-insane commitment to the lead role, dropping an astonishing 100 pounds to play the disturbed insomniac Trevor Reznick. While we don't see anything quite to that effect here, what this film really does show is that filmmaker Brad Anderson is truly here to stay and one we should all keep an eye on.
Like most Hitchcock films, this story starts out simple enough. Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are church missionaries from America who go on a relief mission to China. Instead of flying back, Roy, a choo-choo-o-phile, wants to take the famous Transsiberian Express from Peking to Moscow, a seven-day voyage. The train has certainly seen better days, and now it's primarily used as a trafficking venue for drug-runners. The couple finds some new travel companions in their cabin-mates, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abbey (Kate Mara), who seem like a friendly young couple. After Roy misses the train on one of the stops, it starts to become clear to Jessie, a former miscreant herself, that these aren't the people they thought they were. As this onion of a film slowly peels away, with a few shocking mid-film twists, Roy and Jessie get plunged into a world they'd never thought they'd have to enter.
I'm really starting to like Emily Mortimer these days, especially after her smashing turn in David Mamet's masterful Redbelt, but she's the true star here using her range and depth to flesh out this extremely complex character of Jessie amazingly. Woody Harrelson shines in bringing out the naivete in Roy, something we don't see from him much, and I liked it. While I really dug Kate Mara's performance, I really wish she was used more and I think Eduardo Noriega was solid as well, although it seemed he laid this slick-talking Carlos character on a little too thick at times.
The real star of this show, though, is co-writer/director Brad Anderson. The story he crafted with co-writer Will Conroy is simply astounding, employing the perfect blend of character development, fused in with deeply-layered plot-lines and unique dramatic twists in places you won't expect them, all in the framework of this simple story about a couple trying to get away from another couple. Anderson's direction is simply masterful and borderline genius. One scene in particular, where Mortimer is going to get some ice from the dining car...and the rest of the train is gone, is so chillingly and astoundingly effective I literally watched that scene at least five times, over and over again. What's so great about Anderson's direction is he seems like the perfect hybrid of indie and mainstream. He gives you that indie feel in places, with certain shots or angles or lighting, but his isn't self-centered direction with all these quirks that force you to notice what the director is doing. He's focused on these characters and the story the whole time and he captures them all in his own way without drawing exorbitant attention to his craft. He gives you some great touches of mainstream as well, highlighted by a gruesome torture scene that would even make Eli Roth proud.
Transsiberian is, in a word, remarkable. It isn't a gimmicky, big-buget affair with a watered-down feel. It's a rich, textured masterpiece that will leave you shocked, amazed and in awe, not only of how "Hitchcockian" it is, but why more movies can't be like this.