On Easter Day at the turn of the twentieth century, the Tsar Nicholas II presented the Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna with a Faberg√© egg. Mounted on three golden griffins and lined on the inside with velvet, it opened to reveal a miniature wind-up locomotive, executed in gold and platinum. The "Trans-Siberian Railway Egg," as historians call it, honored the eponymous rail route, a stretch of tracks spanning nine thousand kilometers from Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok and Beijing.
A century and two Russian regime-shifts later, the golden monstrosity has hatched--and the newborn creature, a film called Transsiberian like both its namesakes, is, for the most part, a wholly delectable chaos. A schizophrenic sampler of tropes, the film throws Emma Bovary, Raskolnikov, James Bond and all of Hitchcock in a blender, without worrying too much about the contradictions.
The result is surprisingly refreshing. Director Brad Anderson's thriller suggests a cinematic Law of the Faberg√© Egg: the art object most fitting for a tsar (whether he reigns from a Petersburgian throne or from the popcorn-littered American sort) is the one where maximal kitsch meets the tightest, most self-conscious craftsmanship. The Trans-Siberian Railway Egg differs from a cheap plastic snow-globe not so much in its theme (both are relentlessly trite) as in its intricacy. Transsiberian revels similarly in the played-out, but Anderson fits its kitschy parts together with sufficient virtuosity that the film makes it, say, two-thirds of the way from snow-globular vulgarity to eggish charm.
The movie opens with a delightful layering of stereotypes. Ilya Grinko (Ben Kingsley), a comicbook caricature of a Russian narcotics detective with a slight Porfirian flair, is investigating a hit job in colorless Vladivostok--as he steps away from the scene, an all-American voiceover declares: "Ours is not a gray world..." A moment later, we discover that the voice belongs, in fact, to a portly minister in Beijing, conducting the closing ceremony of a two-week charity mission.
Our hero and heroine are in attendance: Roy (Woody Harrelson), a jolly hardware-store owner whose locomotive fetish (he has a train set in his basement and won't shut up about track gauges and coal burners) is one of the film's more enjoyable oddities and his inscrutable wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer), an amateur photographer and, as we later learn, an ex-alcoholic rescued by Roy in a nice echo of the old Russian Christian-man-meets-fallen-woman melodrama. The two have decided, instead of flying right home, to take the Trans-Siberian to Moscow first.
On the train, they meet their berth-mates, a pair of suspicious itinerants who say they're on their way back from teaching English in Japan, but who might just be running drugs. Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) is a shaggy, charismatic Spaniard--half-boyish and half-threatening. He's a consummate work of Don Juanero kitsch (in his attempts to seduce Jessie, he delectably urges her to go back to the time when "life was just--sensaci√≥nes"). His girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara) is a twenty-year-old from Seattle, brooding and knit-capped and eye-lined to oblivion. She looks, by turns, like a little high-school grunge girl and a Gogolian wraith.
The four step off the train at Irkutsk--Jessie and Abby amble through the station while Carlos follows Roy to an old rail yard. When Jessie gets back on the train, she finds that Roy is missing. At the next stop, she disembarks to wait for him, and the other two offer to stay with her, in suspicious gallantry. The events packed into this layover throw the movie into high gear, and when she and Roy reunite, the stage is set for a Dostoevskian face-off between Jessie and Detective Grinko, whom Roy has met on the train in the meantime.
At this point, the movie seems to forget its own putative genre--a flailing Jessie nearly falls off the end of the train; gunshots and a train-wreck ensue; and I am fairly confident that one of the intermediate scenes was shot on an old Goldeneye set. But let's not forget the Egg Rule--who cares about believability or assonance or taste? Anderson weaves all his cinematic elements together with surprising seamlessness, and I applaud him for that.
Regardless of his film's eruption into action-movie chaos, he maintains a masterful and thrilling equilibrium, a nearly-Almodovarian moral ambiguity--the five main characters are, for the most part, equally likeable and equally repellent. That, in the end, can set one recycled film apart from all the others.
ALEX VERDOLINI B'11 is brooding and knit-capped and eye-lined to oblivion.