At first glance, Transsiberian looks like the typical story of innocents abroad. Jessie (Emily Mortimer) and her husband, Roy (Woody Harrelson), stumble into grave danger as they travel from Beijing to Moscow via train. Jessie is reckless, Roy is naive, and both make several foolish decisions, but interestingly, the culture clash between entitled Americans and world-weary Russians is merely a backdrop to the truly compelling subject: Jessie and Roy’s troubled marriage and, even more specifically, Jessie’s tortured sense of self.
The rest of the movie—with the drugs, false identities, and mobsters—is all pretty generic, but Jessie is a fascinating character, and Mortimer plays her beautifully. She’s not always likable, certainly not that admirable, but she’s wholly real and engagingly human, and she makes the movie worth seeing.
When we first meet Jessie and Roy, they’ve just completed a church mission project in China and are preparing to play tourist with a trip along the Transsiberian railroad and a few days sightseeing in Moscow before they return to their home in Iowa. On the train, they share a cabin with another couple: darkly flirtatious Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), to whom Jessie is attracted, however much she might wish otherwise, and reticent young Abby (Kate Mara), in whom Jessie sees her younger self. Spending time with Carlos and Abby further exposes the fissures in Jessie and Roy’s marriage, and by the time they encounter Grinko (Ben Kingsley), a Russian cop, Jessie is close to a breakdown.
Screenwriters Brad Anderson and Will Conroy lay on the corn-fed Midwesterner shtick a bit thick, especially where Roy is concerned, but their rendering of the couple’s relationship is remarkably deft. We gradually piece together their backstory: Jessie was a drifter, struggling with drug and alcohol problems, when she met wholesome, churchgoing Roy, and their drastically different histories shadow their marriage. It’s not always clear whether Roy loves Jessie or his own romantic image of a fallen angel, and Jessie seems to feel both gratitude and resentment toward her husband. In one of the best scenes, Roy teasingly remarks that he’s managed to break Jessie of all her vices but smoking, and she snappishly quotes back at him, “Kill off my demons and my angels might die, too” (a reworking of a line from Tennessee Williams).
When Jessie refers, in passing, to “Roy’s church—I mean our church,” my heart breaks for her, alienated as she is from her own life. But Jessie’s not a victim. She chose her new life. She chooses to hide her feelings and troubles from Roy, though he begs her to be honest with him and insists that he will love her no matter what she has done. Maybe he’s wrong, but maybe she is, and regardless, she hasn’t given him the opportunity to prove himself one way or the other.
Mortimer usually plays sweetly demure waifs, so it’s good to see her tackle a darker, more brittle role. In some ways, she’s fleshing out those previous paper-thin parts, exposing the lie of portraying a grown woman as a porcelain doll. Jessie might display astonishingly poor judgment, but she’s a richly developed character, and it’s a joy to watch Mortimer explore her faults and weaknesses.
I don’t know if Transsiberian is worthy of Mortimer’s riveting Jessie. Some of the stereotyping (particularly of Carlos, the lascivious and untrustworthy Spaniard) makes me cringe; a nastily violent episode late in the movie made me recoil; and the true nature of Carlos’ nesting Russian dolls should have been obvious to Jessie from the moment she first saw them. (Honestly, anyone who doesn’t immediately grasp the significance of those dolls should never venture past the safety of his or her white picket fence.)
But the movie’s pacing is strong (co-screenwriter Anderson also directs), and some of the location shots are beautiful: the scene at a remote, tumbledown Russian Orthodox church almost makes me want to visit Siberia myself. Best of all, the conclusion of Transsiberian is unusually ambiguous, morally speaking. Do Roy and Jessie have a real future together? Did Jessie learn anything? Did she do the right thing in the end? Anderson and Conroy leave the answers up to us, and none of them are easy, which makes the movie more thought-provoking and memorable than a thriller involving nesting Russian dolls has any right to be.