Friday, November 16 , 2018, 2:41 am | Fair 48º


Cinema in Focus: ‘Transsiberian’

The harshly frigid setting of the white wasteland of Siberia fits the violent film's moral message.

1 Star — Degrading

The harshly frigid setting for Brad Anderson‘s Transsiberian fits its moral message. Presenting a story that is brutally violent, there is no one in the film who gives any relief from the unrelenting barrage of cold characters who murder, betray, lie and steal. From the opening scenes of a frozen corpse, caught at the moment a knife impaled the back of his skull, to the graphic torture of a young person by that same knife in an attempt to get information, to every character whose moral fire is extinguished by this chilling tale, the film offers nothing that uplifts anyone’s life.

Sharing the writing with Will Conroy, Anderson centers his film on an American couple who have gone to Beijing on a Christian mission to help children. At the conclusion of their mission, their pastor (Mac McDonald) reminds them that this world is “not a gray place, but a place of right and wrong.”

Agreeing wholeheartedly, Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) head for home, but rather than flying back to Iowa, they decide to take the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow, a six-day journey. The reasons for this are varied and revealed throughout the film. This internal journey matches the frigidity of their Siberian landscape as we see how cold they can both become.

Roy is a man whose faith has compelled him to do good things for others. Jessie is a woman who has struggled and often been in need of help. This match between Roy’s need to help and Jessie’s need to be helped is the basis of their marriage and their mission. Trying to impress Jessie with his adventurous spirit to somehow satisfy her restless soul by embarking on an adventure, Roy puts them in tremendous danger as they naively travel the Trans-Siberian route.

The danger is personified when Abby (Kate Mara) and Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) join them. A dark and foreboding person, Abby is troubled and jealous. Carlos seems as carefree as Abby is anxious and, bringing his Spanish charm to the cabin they all share, sexual tension begins between Carlos and Jessie. We soon realize that this is only the tip of the iceberg as it becomes evident that Carlos and Abby are on a dangerous journey they have chosen for themselves.

The other representative of the danger of their journey is a paradoxical character who is attempting to live in both the darkness and the light. Detective Grinko (Ben Kingsley) is a police officer who has lived through the transition of the USSR to the current Russian state. Explaining that there are two ways out of modern Russia, “either up in a private jet or down in a coffin,” Grinko justifies his decision to participate in a heroin drug cartel. Genuinely uneasy with his fallen state, we watch as he struggles with Roy and Jessie as they become accidentally enmeshed in the cartel’s affairs.

The Siberian wasteland has long been a place of banishment and a metaphor for suffering in life. As one Russian explains that “the government has denied there is a God and denied there is a Siberia,” we recognize people’s desire for truth, freedom from oppression and confession of wrongdoing.

The fact that human beings can become so cold-hearted is difficult to accept, and we would like to reject that notion. This film goes too far in breaking through any denial of the evil in human nature. Even in Siberia, there can be the warmth of human life and people living with faith, but in this film, the Christian is forced to kill and the church is a dilapidated ruin. Thankfully, this does not have to be true of Siberia nor of life.


» The danger that Roy puts himself and Jessie in is foolish. Have you ever placed yourself or someone you love in a dangerous place? Why? What brought you to do so? What happened?

» When Carlos aggressively comes on to Jessie, she reacts. Do you believe her reaction was justified? Why or why not? Why do you think the film put this scene in the ruin of a church?

» The film attempts to make everything come out right in the end for Roy, Jessie and Abby. What do you believe such an experience would do to them when they returned to their home in Iowa, or if Abby bought her grandfather’s place in Vancouver? Could they go on with a “normal” life?

Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit

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