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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Riding the Trans-Siberian

As I’ve stated before – multiple times – I’m a huge fan ofBrad Anderson’s Session 9. The film is one of the only legitimately scary horror films that has come out in the past ten years. Nothing in Anderson’s previous films, both of them romantic comedies, could have prepared us for how adept he would be at terrifying audiences. It wasn’t just a frightening concept – following five asbestos workers in an abandoned mental hospital – but he was confident enough to let things build slowly, allowing the dread to seep in with each scene. It’s amazing when you go back and look at the movie and notice that there is not one line or one moment in the film that doesn’t increase the terror just a notch until, by the end, you’re not only confused but squirming. When the surprise at the end comes, it doesn’t shock you the way an M. Night Shyamalan ending might; it just seems to be the only logical explanation.

I really loved that movie and so was disappointed in his follow-up The Machinist, but it wasn’t the movie’s fault; instead, I was betrayed by the marketing, believing I was supposed to be watching another horror film and, when I wasn’t scared, I thought the movie had done something wrong. Looking back at it now, I can see Anderson was going for a somber and unsettling drama. Sure, there are scary moments in it and the idea of not sleeping for years is indeed freaky, we’re not supposed to look at Christian Bale’s emaciated frame and experience fear; rather, we should be feeling empathy, loneliness, and loss.

Brad Anderson’s new film, Transsiberian, is not a horror film either but it’s probably the scariest film I’ve seen this year.

I’m sure the one thing many people think about when they walk out Transsiberian is the way in which it resembles a Hitchcock film. The interesting thing about it, though, is that there isn’t a single shot that resembles anything Alfred Hitchcock ever photographed; so Anderson’s new film doesn’t feel like a Hitchcock facsimile in the way that a Brian De Palma film does. The obvious parallel is with either Strangers on a Train or North By Northwest because of the use of a train to confine the characters and trap them in an enclosed space with nothing but their secrets.

I was reminded instead of the old Hitchcock adage about the bomb underneath the table and the audience knows but the characters don’t and how that was the essence of suspense. In this case, however, that bomb is a lie and this film is all about how a single lie can continue to eat away at not only a person, but a relationship. It’s also about how a simple action and the lie that follows can put people you care about in grave danger.

The film follows an American couple, Roy and Jessie (played by Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) as they trek by train from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Roy is boisterous sort, enjoys being around people but loves his routine; for him, the trip is the kind of adventure he’s never taken before and he wants to enjoy every second of it. Jessie is introspective, the kind of woman who had a wild past and is trying to settle down despite the fact that she has demons gnawing at her constantly. The trip was Roy’s way of showing Jessie he can be spontaneous, hoping that Jessie will return the favor by settling down and having a baby.

On the train Roy and Jessie share a compartment with Abby and Carlos (played by Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega) who may or may not be doing something criminal. They are younger than Jessie and Roy and they seem a lot more adventurous; Carlos in particular seems to remind Jessie of the guys she gave up before she met Roy and Abby reminds Jessie of herself. For Roy, these are just a couple of fun-loving kids they can hang out with and share some drinks.

For most of the film, we are trying to get to know both of these couples and trying to ascertain their motivations. At about the halfway mark, we realize that Jessie is our main character andEmily Mortimer proves to be more than up to the task of carrying the film. I’ve always loved Mortimer as an actress, but here she is dynamic, her eyes darting in all directions like a caged animal and while we might questions some of her judgments, we sympathize with her plight. She pulls off the impossible task of being somebody who tells lie after lie, but never becomes someone we don’t identify with. Truthfully, it’s the type of performance that should win awards.

Mortimer is ably backed up by Harrelson who seems like he’s having a blast in this role; it’s amazing the range this guy has when you compare this role to his character in Paul Schrader’s The Walker or his performances in White Men Can’t Jump or No Country for Old Men or A Scanner Darkly. He is one of the most underrated actors out there and he takes a character that could have been a mere bore and turns him into someone impossible to dislike.

Noriega and Mara and Ben Kingsley also do great jobs. Kingsley in particular is having an interesting year between this, War Inc., and The Wackness. In those three movies, he’s got three different accents and three distinct personalities, reminding us what a wonderful character actor he can be. Noriega also does a great job of never letting us get a read on him.

One of my favorite aspects of the movie was that it was filmed mostly on a train and is set in the middle of nowhere in Russia, meaning that our characters are trapped in multiple ways. We know that even if they do get off the train, they are still stuck in a remote location surrounded by nothing but the white of snow. Part of the fun of the movie is watching how each of these characters react in these kinds of claustrophobic and entirely foreign conditions. We start to see ourselves in their places, wondering how we would react in such dire circumstances. I couldn’t help but think about how I will try to never travel to a country where I’m unfamiliar with their laws; not that I would break them, but I certainly couldn’t handle the type of punishment they mete out.

Ultimately, though, this is a film about a relationship and what dishonesty can do to a relationship. The train is really just a metaphor for the world and how we can hide our secrets in different compartments, but what happens if you happen to stumble upon something in one of those compartments that can cause serious harm to the person you care about most? Do you try to get rid of all traces of it or do you tell your partner first? What Jessie does in this movie determines how she feels about the idea of settling down and her ideas of independence. She’s wary of losing herself in this relationship and so she has a habit of keeping things to herself that she probably shouldn’t. This seems to be Anderson and co-screenwriter Will Conroy telling the audience that relationships cannot work without complete honesty, if for no other reason than being less than truthful can hurt your partner.

Anderson’s direction is just as confident as it has been in his last few movies and he seems to have picked up a few different ideas of how to work with his actors because the performances in this one are stronger than in any of his films to date – and that’s saying a lot considering Bale’s performance in The Machinist. The cinematography is by his Machinist photographerXavi Gimenez and while he bathed that previous movie in browns and grey, this one felt more stark and naturalistic with a lot more natural (looking) lighting and an overall blue sensation.

What this film does for me is solidify Brad Anderson as a filmmaker to watch out for. He keeps improving bit by bit and attacking different genres; I think eventually he’s going to get to a point where he will make a certifiable masterpiece. For now, though, Transsiberian is just a wildly intense ride.

– Noah Forrest
July 29, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon