I’ve made it no secret that I absolutely adore Brad Anderson. Since first seeing it six years ago, Session 9 has remained among my favorite horror films and if you have ever noticed, is encompassed in the design of my blog. So I’m really not surprised that Transsiberian, his most recent attempt at blowing my fucking mind with awesomeness, has been universally well-reviewed. A long-winded and irrelevant introduction is unnecessary, though I would be foolish were I to not include a giant SPOILER ALERT, as my discussion of this film is dependent on giving away some specific details not normally included in a standard review.
But mine are anything but standard, aren’t they? They’re more discussions than anything.
Alternating between the serene Siberian landscape and the cramped quarters of a railway car, our film rests the camera upon a couple travelling from Beijing to Moscow on the Transsiberian railway. Train-obsessed Roy and photography hobbyist Jassie decide to invigorate their relationship by hopping aboard the infamous railway for an adventure in the Siberian wilderness. Upon getting settled in for what looks to be the trip of a lifetime, their bunkmates show up. Carlos, the attractive and experienced traveler, and Abby, his quiet and suspicious looking companion, are welcomed with open arms by the outspoken and boisterous Roy, yet met with a quiet suspicion by Jessie.
Throughout the trip, we learn a little more about our two pairs of travelers. Carlos collects souvenir matryoshka dolls, which he shows to Jessie and hides from Abby due to past problems with customs; Jessie’s shy and teetotaler demeanor belies her party-girl past, as she reveals to Carlos that she met Roy seemingly after a drunken accident; and Abby is a nomadic Seattle-ite who, at this point, is relatively unassuming. Roy, being the lovable but bumbling trainophile that he is, gets left behind in Irkutsk on a sightseeing excursion. After a mild panic attack, Jessie decides to debark at the next stop in order to wait for him to catch up via the next train. Joined by Carlos and Abby in what appears to be a relatively altruistic gesture of friendship and concern, the three check into a hotel. Dinner is had, stories are told, and a couple moments of lingering yet awkward romance between Carlos and Jessie wind down the evening. And then the shit hits the fan.
Unfortunately, the summary must end there so as to not give away any more of the plot, as a convenient stopping point was impossibly hard to discern through the evenly one hundred and eleven minutes; it never just plods along.
Visually the film is stunning. Much like other films set in a wintry landscape (The Last Winter, The Thing) the environment is a catalyst for the tension. Isolation leads to paranoia, paranoia turns to fear, and then the fear takes hold, escalating steadily throughout the film in an obvious throwback to Hitchcock’s thrillers. All this wouldn’t be possible, though, if Anderson weren’t so skilled at writing such phenomenal characters. Roy is nerdy and outgoing, the perfect complement to Jessie’s shy and reserved demeanor; this is mirrored in their new traveling companions. Abby, who early on appears to represent the post-college vagabond, is seen as a victim to Jessie and the antithesis to Carlos, and as such a major source of hostility between the two, bolstered in no small part by the sexual tension between the two. This interaction leads to an increasing level of paranoia made all the more real by the late arrival of Ben Kingsley as a badass Russian narcotics detective, who reveals that not all is at it seems.
This where Anderson shines: his ability to stray from the common conventions of horror and craft wholly unique characters, placed in extraordinary situations that elicit a level of fear in the viewer that isn’t dependent on jump scares or pompous string arrangements to let you know the danger is fast approaching. From the chilling music to the landscape, he uses every possible resource without lapsing into the techniques that beleaguer the bulk of mainstream horror.
Through it all, however, Anderson still manages to inject a modicum of pop horror elements in the form of torture to keep the genre crowd satisfied, yet manages to do so without it being over-the-top. “At one point, a knife is slowly run through the already existing wounds on one victim’s leg; this scene, at the risk of feeling out of place, is made relevant through the character’s relationships, slowly being built and manipulated throughout the progression of the film.
Brad Anderson’s films elucidate the differences between horror and thriller in a manner that transcends genre assignment; the external threat of man, a subject in which Anderson excels at representing though his multifaceted characters, collides with the internal threat of man’s own emotions and fears. The end result is not just a horror film or a thriller, but instead a dramatic character study that illustrates both the fragility of the human condition and the ability inherent in us all to crack when the pressure becomes just a little too great.
This is what makes Anderson such a phenomenal writer and director. The fear in most contemporary horror films or thrillers, when not dependent on cinematography, music, lighting and what have you, comes from what is perceived by the viewer as the physical threat; The Descent had the creatures, Dog Soldiers had the lycanthropes, and the fact that both of those films are by Neil Marshall is pure coincidence. Anderson subverts convention and makes bold and courageous moves injecting a human element in his movies, removing the need for monsters and ghosts to serve as the catalyst for fear. This is why Transsberian excels in almost every possible way.