You know how to make a good movie mediocre? You make three movies and put it into one. I’m going to have to work on my generalizations. When I reviewed L.A. Confidential (1997), I said that’s how you make a great movie. Well, if that’s how you make a great movie and a mediocre one, one must conclude that it’s medium risk, high reward. If I were to distinguish Transsiberian (2008) from L.A. Confidential (vis-à-vis three stories), I would say that full awareness of the juggling was at hand in the latter, but not the former.
Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are on the Trans-Siberian Railroad as a vacation after doing some good works for kids in China. On the way, they meet up with Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara) who are just doing some traveling (or are they?!). Meanwhile, narco Detective Ilya Grinko (Ben Kingsley) is on the trail of some big-time drug traffikers. Things are tense and everyone’s got a backstory (except Roy) and some significant demons (except Roy). When Roy doesn’t get back on the train, Jessie is worried and she, with Carlos and Abby, get off at the next stop and wait for Roy to arrive the next day. Then Jessie (Spoiler) (Spoiler) and, by chance, meets Grinko on the train that day. That’s the beginning Act II. Act III is where the wheels come off the wagon.
Premise is difficult here because I’m not entirely sure what’s a spoiler and what isn’t. In L.A. Confidential (and I realize that it’s unfair to compare things against great movies), there was enough characterization to give an idea of what the movie was about. That’s because the movie was about the characters involved rather than the plot, which was simply the vehicle (and an excellent one at that). In this movie, it’s definitely plot first, character second.
Roy is a nice guy who gets along with people. Typical American tourist. Jessie is a girl with a past who has become…what? The character is too nuanced without being expressive. She did all of these things, but she’s still as prim as usual, an inveterate liar, and sometimes tarty. She isn’t strong, especially not for someone who’s been through it all, nor is she broken or even fractured. Thus, when her big moment arrives, it comes off like Camus’ stranger. Which is fine, but you’ve got to back it up with something. That should have been the plot.
No, Roy and Jessie aren’t our characters’ characters, so that must mean Carlos, Abby, and Grinko are brimming with interestingness. Well, you’d be mostly wrong there. Carlos is Han Solo without the charm but twice the libido. Abby is the girl that’s traveling with Carlos. The blame for these two utter failures—and I mean that—is shared by all concerned.
For a third leg of the tripod, a lot more needs to be invested than a simple plot spine and big reveal. The actors needed to invest themselves more, but they’ve also got to get the screen time (that’s on director Brad Anderson) and subtle dialogue to give us a clue what’s what (that’s on co-writers Brad Anderson and Will Conroy. It wasn’t that it was ambiguous and I was too dense—well, maybe it was, how could I tell the difference?—it was that they completely sold one narrative while contradicting it in the last couple minutes. Sure, there was one hint, but it was so conspicuously unsupported, I discarded it as a reason to (Spoiler) (Spoiler).
Grinko starts off strong. He looks like a sharp detective who knows his business. That’s quickly ruined. How? Because the odd thing he does is explained, upon immediate consideration, in one of two ways. Well, it turns out to be the more boring of those two ways when it should have been a third, crazy way that I couldn’t think of. Talk about unfair criticism! Not only did I want a different movie, but I want them to be cleverer than I am upon immediate consideration. Well, the latter isn’t an unfair criticism. That’s an absolute requirement for a thriller.
I’ll tell you what’s more! Grinko, the other third of our tripod, is first on screen (of the main cast) and then doesn’t come back until an hour later! How did he get there? What has he been doing all that time? What kind of car does he drive? These are just some of the questions they could have dealt with if they wanted to balance the story. Instead, he’s just a device they use in order to tie up the story.
I imagine the thought process was as follows. “Hey, guess what?” says A. “What?” asks B. “We just got Ben Kingsley to play Grinko!” claims A. “You’re joking, we’ve got Ghandi?” asks B. “We do,” says A. “Uh oh,” worries B. “You’re thinking about the timing, aren’t you?” queries A. “I am,” says B, “he doesn’t come into the story until half way in. Won’t the audience say ‘Hey, I thought Ben Kingsley was in this’?” “I know,” offers A, “let’s put him into a really brief scene at the start.” “Brilliant,” says B, “let’s make sure it’s ambiguous to the point of misleading.” “Do we have to, like, totally rewrite the thing to make the part complicated or interesting?” probes A. “Nah,” says B, reassuringly.
What I can’t fully understand is why I kind of liked the movie. On paper, this thing does not work. All my thoughts on it are negative. The writing had a couple of darn good lines, but they were undermined later by similar sounding good lines. One good Russian saying works, more than one sounds like you trawled through a Common Russian Sayings book.
What I think is happening, and I like this thought because it makes me sound kind of genius, is that they’ve got these premises that are pretty sound and I can fill in the bits that they should have incorporated with my imagination. I like this explanation for many of my opinions of movies people, on the whole, find less-than-stellar.
Still, I didn’t dislike the movie, it just failed to be good.