It's hard to believe that The Machinist and Transsiberian were children of the same person. Or that the same pen wrote the smart and funny Happy Accidents and the moronic film I saw at the Uptown a few days ago. I'm still baffled by how anyone could find suspense or intrigue out of a film built on such slight stereotypes (the Russian cop, aka torturer; the backpacker, aka drug smuggler; and the American tourist, aka idiot) and on a scenario that is utterly droll for the sake of being complex. Opinions differ on this film to the point where I am clearly in the critical minority, causing me to reassess, but I still come back to the same verdict. At the height of the suspense, instead of being engaged I was either knotting my brow in disbelief or distracted by the people getting up, wondering if they were leaving and wondering if I should do the same.
Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer are Roy and Jessie, a married couple completing some sort of vague good will effort in China organized by their church. Instead of flying back home, Roy, a train enthusiast, and Emily, a restless soul that has yet to settle, decide to take the Trans-Siberian train to Moscow and fly back to Iowa from there. Needless to say, the journey is the romantic adventure they had hoped for. (Especially since when Jessie wants Roy to use a condom, gosh darn it.) When globetrotters Carlos and Abby show up to share their cabin, suspicion and couriousity is aroused as they are transparently painted as the 'bad element'. Maybe a little less transparent, but nonetheless stereotypical is Grinko, the Russian detective, who also befriend Roy and Jessie at a convinient time. Who's zoomin' who is the question of the hour as we stay on pins and needles until we find out if our American friends can survive the web of international trechary! Not.
Anderson is good at flipping the coin back and forth: making something romantic into something frightening, or something beautiful into something ugly, or something passionate into something violent. Specifically, when Jessie and Carlos visit a deserted church out in the middle of nowhere - not only do you start to feel some honesty in the characters and the situation, but it is also a plateau in the film of breathtaking beauty. Save this one scene, Anderson's preoccupation with the blurred lines of who we are as individuals in this global village of Russian train travel feels like a contrived morality tale looking to outdo Moses on Mount Sinai. From this perspective, it's hard not to read into Roy's eventual fall from innocence in the face of the big bad world and Jessie's discovery of a deeper love for her knight-in-shining-armour husband. Not to mention her resulting change of heart about offspring.
Woody Harrelson's character, Roy, comes a close second to Mark Wahlberg's character in The Happening as one of the most annoying characters of the year. A God loving American, from Iowa no less, who loves trains, he is naive to a fault. Perhaps Anderson is having a little fun making iconic generalizations for the sake of allegory, like the fool-hardy Christian from Iowa or the weathered punk girl from Seattle. I had a hard time swallowing it, even for the sake of parable.