A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Never Trust Strangers…In Snow

In drama on March 15, 2009 at 4:25 am

The premise of meeting a stranger, getting to know this person – or persons, in some cases – and forming a bond is a well-worn trope of movies. Adding the fact that the person you’ve met isn’t exactly who they say they are, well, that’s almost as old and the basic setup to many a thriller. We trust people – even today, when serial killers are a household concept and people are needlessly killed, and often for no reason – and still will pick up a hitchhiker (since I know a few people that still do hitchhike, I’m assuming they’re getting rides), allow a stranger into our house and even go out on dates with people we meet over the internet, not knowing anything other than the profile they’ve posted and maybe a couple conversations. I guess it has to do with the fact that the majority of us are still left alive, after these encounters is what sets us at ease – even if we don’t completely trust these people – and makes us uncomfortable when watching a movie like this. 

So, whether we’re weary of a next door neighbor, concerned with secret-agents or spies living in our city or just in the wrong place at the wrong time; strangers always have us at a disadvantage.

One such movie, TRANSSIBERIAN, is about a couple coming from China after spending a couple months helping out children in need and on the way back decide to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Moscow.  The couple, played by Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer, have been having some marital issues – she was a wild-child who still has burning embers in her soul and he wants a family and enjoys his train set in the basement. So, this journey, is meant to give them some private time together – her taking photos and him geeking out about train facts, like at the border the trains have to switch axels because Russia’s tracks are wider than the Chinese tracks – and bonding with the “locals” taking the train.

Then we meet Abby (Kate Mara) and Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), a young American girl with her slightly older Spanish boyfriend. They’ve gotten onto the train a couple of stops into the Russian country-side, after having been teaching English in Japan and traveling all over the world.  They’ve been placed inside the same cabin as Roy (Harrelson) and Jessie (Mortimer), and despite Abby’s hesitance to socialize, they start hanging out in the dining car, and while the younger couple make love in the bunk across from them Jessie catches a little peak. After one particular stop, when the movie ambiguously cuts away from a scene with Roy and Carlos checking out some old, retired trains – Jessie isn’t able to find her husband on the train anywhere. Getting off at the next stop, to wait for the next train to see if he is on there, the other couple decide that it’s safer if they stay with Jessie, as opposed to her staying in the Russian countryside all alone. 

The movie opens with a crime scene, where we are originally introduced to a Russian “Narcotics” Inspector, played by Ben Kingsley, and we’re lead to believe that the cargo that Carlos and Abby are carrying might in fact be involved with that crime. It’s not until an accidental murder takes place in the small town that Jessie and her new friends takes place and Roy shows up on the next train, with a new cabin-mate/translator – played by Ben Kingsley – that the real mystery and question on who we should believe and what exactly is going on starts. The movie builds a nice amount of tension and is frightening and even kind of gross in a couple of parts, but I thought that it was really effective. And considering the pedigree of the writer/director, I can understand why. 

Brad Anderson is said writer/director (along with Will Conroy, credited as a co-writer) and he has previously created movies such as SESSION 9, THE MACHINIST – just credited as director on this one – known for it’s performance by an emaciated Christian Bale – who lost an amazingly, frightening 60 pounds for the role – and a number of other television episodes for shows like Fringe, The Wire and The Shield. Here, he does great job of using the white of the surrounding area, both in landscape establishing shots as well as the claustrophobic feeling of spending days on a train. The writing itself, is taut and seems very natural for the characters. 

The performances are mostly kind of low-key, with the show really belonging to Emily Mortimer and Eduardo Noriega, who play the two main characters that develop the most character and have some of the most dramatic (and traumatic) scenes. Mortimer, who was also seen this past year in REDBELT, written and directed by David Mamet and THE PINK PANTHER movies (which, I’ve not seen any of…including the original Peter Sellers version), has a very interesting face which is both pleasing to look at – she is very attractive – but she also has a certain sadness in her eyes, which played well in both this movie and in REDBELT. Where she is tortured in some way. In this movie, it’s because she’s a recovering alcoholic and trouble-maker who is in the process of being tamed by Roy, the man she married after having crashed into his car. 

Noriega, who I last saw in VANTAGE POINT, with Matthew Fox and Dennis Quaid, is the charming bad boy in TRANSSIBERIAN. There’s an aspect to the character that lets you know he can get pretty much anything he wants and has to put little effort into doing so. He’s loud and carefree, and even though you know he’s just waiting to find his opening to turn the tables on our main couple you also don’t want to believe that he’s a bad guy. We see in his eyes and in his smile and constant goading in trying to make people do things they don’t necessarily want to do, that he’s just enjoying life. 

Which, when we get to one of the climatic scenes of the movie – with Abby and Carlos, having ventured off into the countryside to visit an old, derelict church; we assume we know what’s going to happen. As they had flirted and Abby even saying, “I wish I’d met you a couple years ago” it’s built up that we’re going to have an erotic scene in the Siberian tundra. What we get though, is a frightening scene of church rafters falling, a chase through the woods and a death by wood plank. It’s a very effective scene for a number of reasons, which had been built up in the movie. And when it’s over and we’re left with the snow falling on our main characters and the tears falling from eyes, we’re left not knowing where the hell this movie can go next. 

Woody Harrelson, who has kind of had a light resurgence in the past few years, with roles in A SCANNER DARKLY, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, SEVEN POUNDS and the upcoming 2012, has kind of the thankless role. Being that his character disappears for a good while in the movie and we’re not sure what happened to him. The small amount of time we do have on screen with him, at the beginning is kind of set to make him annoying and far too “goody-too-shoes” to counteract the darker role of his wife. He loves trains, and geeks out about everything to do with them. When he does show up again, he’s still slightly cartoonish, but is soon thrown into the deep end with Mortimer and while he still isn’t really left to do much, other than put his train-knowledge to use, he is always interesting to watch on the screen. 

Kate Mara, who hasn’t had much more than smaller roles in a few recent movies (SHOOTER, WE ARE MARSHALL) plays her role of the ambiguous girlfriend of Carlos, pretty well. The little bit of character we get from her, is basically setup for a couple of later scenes – one in which we’re meant to question her innocence and then another at the end of the movie. Other than the dark eye-liner and chain-smoking the role doesn’t really ask for much, but she does a good job with what she has to do.

The final two main characters in the movie, Ben Kingsley’s Ilia Grinko and Thomas Kretschmann’s Kolzak. Both are presented to us as Russian policemen. With Kingsley getting most of the dialogue and Kretschmann standing in the background looking scary. I will say that along with LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN, I have a little more faith in Kingsley’s choosing of roles, which in recent years – with the biggest exception being his role as Don Logan in SEXY BEAST – he hasn’t done so well at. He does a good job in this movie, despite a couple of slips where his accent seems to disappear. But, he has the same kind of ambiguity and uncertainty that keeps us interested in his character. Earlier in the movie, we have a scene between Roy and Jessie in the dining car where they are given a warning by a Frenchman – played by Etienne Chicot (Lieutenant Collet in 2006’s THE DA VINCI CODE) – about trifling with Russian police. A good scene, that even though we know is foreshadowing, is a nice shade of what’s to come. 

Overall, the movie works and it’s probably up to your own moral code on whether you’ll still see Jessie as a hero character, or as someone you just aren’t able to trust. But, it’s a realistic portrayal, as we all tell little lies to hide things from people we love or to stay out of trouble. And of course, in a movie like this, withholding information is part of what keeps the plot moving. If, like in reality, people came clean with what they did, then movies like this would only run for 30 minutes – if that long. There is also one scene that I really liked, that I wanted to mention. And it involves two – almost – sex scenes. In the first one, we see the characters of Roy and Jessie passionately kissing and undressing each other. And then Jessie hints at asking where the condoms are – whether they’re in his wallet, or what – and Roy’s hinting at possibly starting a family by saying, “I thought we’d leave it up to chance”. In movies, rampant with love scenes, there often isn’t much made about people having safe sex, or bringing up condoms, so this really just kind of jumped out at me. And then along with that, in the later scene between Jessie and Carlos, when they’re having their “moment”, we see that Jessie seems more than willing to just let it all go and no longer worry about whether sex with this “bad boy” is safe or not, as it’s just meant to “release tension”. I thought that it was an interesting character point, and for whatever reason felt that it warranted a mention.

FIRST SNOW is about Jimmy Starks, played by Guy Pearce, who is a salesman who has recently come upon a better employment opportunity in selling old Jukeboxes and one day his car breaks down outside of a truck stop in rural New Mexico. While waiting for the mechanic to fix the vehicle – and despite his best attempts to con the guy into working quicker – Jimmy gets the lay of the land. Going for a drink in the bar, checking out the vendors in the parking lot selling weird little doo-hickeys and finally coming upon a guy sitting outside a little trailer hitched to his truck – with a sign that says, “Fortunes Told”. With time to kill, and a sense of humor, Jimmy steps inside to see what his future has in store for him. After being told that his car will indeed get him home and that he shouldn’t bet against a basketball team with an injured best player, Jimmy is given two more prognostications. One, that he’ll be receiving a windfall of money from Dallas and…well, let’s just say the old man sees something that leads him to give the money back to Jimmy. 

So, Jimmy gets home. He sets out to see his friend, Ed – played by William Fichtner – to watch the game, which seems that the fortune teller might have been right as the injured player is indeed playing, and leads his team to victory. Jimmy notices this, right after his boss – also in the bar – has told him that after a trip to Dallas, he’s going to invest in Jimmy’s Jukebox business. Obviously, shocked and after a routine check-up, is told that he has a heart defect, he heads back out to see the old man – played by a low-key, but always watchable, J.K. Simmons – to find out what it was that freaked him out before. The answer he gets isn’t very clear and leads him on a wild journey of paranoia, hallucination and quite possibly to his death. 

The movie does a really good job at setting up the strange occurrences that start around Jimmy, whether it’s the anonymous phone calls, the shot up target in his mailbox and even strange flashes of him driving on a road at night. We’re not quite sure what’s happening, who’s doing what to Jimmy and what is just being misinterpreted. When Jimmy accidentally sets events in motion, because of an action that a former  colleague did to him – leading to his getting re-involved with a recently paroled friend that Jimmy may, or may not have sold out to cut a deal – we’re not quite sure any longer who might be involved with messing with Jimmy and who is being straight with him. 

The performances in the movie are all spot-on and top-notch. Pearce, who has pretty consistently been great since LA CONFIDENTIAL and MEMENTO (THE TIME MACHINE might have been a misstep) and recently had a great performance as the grungy, Australian cowboy renegade in THE PROPOSITION puts in another good job. Even if this role does get a little close to his performance in MEMENTO, being that his character starts losing control of what’s real, what’s imagined and just exactly he’s supposed to do. He’s both slick and neurotic. He shows that he’s always got plates spinning, and even if it means answering the phone in the middle of having sex with his girlfriend, business always comes first. 

The girlfriend is played by Piper Perabo, who hasn’t done too much but tends to be good in the roles she takes. She’s here just in support of Jimmy and meant to give us someone to worry about, along with Jimmy, for her safety. William Fichtner, as Ed, is always great. Shea Wigham in his small role at the end of the movie puts in a solid, if not entirely sane, performance. I’ve enjoyed his work in the few roles I’ve seen him in (TIGERLAND and WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY), where he’s always just a little “off”. The only other actor to really worthy of mentioning is, as already stated JK Simmons. His role in this is very understated and he portrays the wise/mage role very well. He doesn’t put on theatrics while showcasing his skills and we’re left wondering through a great portion of the movie whether he’s telling the truth about his abilities or maybe whether he’s part of some plot, by a former friend of Jimmy’s. 

The movie is written and directed by a couple of the people responsible for the script of what I considered to be one of the best films of the past few years, CHILDREN OF MEN. Mark Fergus is given a co-writing and directing credit on the movie, with Hawk Ostby receiving a co-writing credit. They also worked on the screenplay of 2008’s IRON MAN. FIRST SNOW is Fergus’ directorial debut, and I believe he does a pretty good job. There are some cliched moments and ideas that present themselves – like the driving down a dark highway, and crossing the double yellow lines – which are actually subtly used as part of the movie – and the quick-cutting, paranoia in a hotel scene. But, the story and acting is engaging enough not to distract and I look forward to seeing what these guys do in the future. 

Also recommended:

SWITCHBACK
ARLINGTON ROAD
FUNNY GAMES
REAR WINDOW
FRANTIC

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