This neatly combines two suspense sub-genres – the ‘temptation’ story, as a slightly bored protagonist takes an understandable step out of line and lands in ever-deeper and hotter water, and the always-workable ‘train’ movie, as the heroine is forced to share a long, perilous journey with mysterious strangers and potential danger on all sides. It opens in Vladivostock with (as it happens) a bit of misdirection as Russian anti-drug cop Ilya Grinko (Ben Kingsley) examines a knifed corpse, and vows to follow the leads. Then, fresh from a spell doing decent church-work in China, we meet Jessie (Emily Mortimer), a recovering wild girl married to devoted hardware store owner and wide-eyed train buff Roy (Woody Harrelson). Because Roy wants to experience the transsiberian, the couple embark on the long trip and wind up in a sleeper cabin with dangerously sexy Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and his quieter American girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara). After a stop-off in the middle of nowhere, Jessie is unnerved to find that Roy isn’t on the train any more – and Carlos and Kate get off at the next stop to stay with her until he catches up. Giving top billing to Harrelson for what turns out to be the stooge role is another bit of misdirection, and – though we’ve seen Carlos heft a suspicious blunt instrument while touring a railyard with Roy – it turns out that he really has innocently missed the train, which ticks off his exasperated wife, who isn’t sure how to respond to Carlos’s come-ons, especially when she innocently mentions his stash of Russian dolls and Abby takes off in a fury, and then finds herself resorting to violence when he takes her out to a ruined church ostensibly to shoot some photographs. Reunited with Roy, Jessie finds that their new cabin-mate is the overly friendly Grinko – who has a less amiable partner (Thomas Kretschmann) stashed around – and that the dolls, which Carlos has stuffed into her kit-bag, are made of shaped heroin.
Director Brad Anderson, following good work in romantic comedy (Next Stop Wonderland) and horror (Session 9), here delivers a post-Soviet slice of Hitchockiana, playing up the grimmer, unromantic aspects of the Russian railway system (toilets that don’t work, snarling staff) and contriving a set of thornier situations for a fetchingly harassed Emily Mortimer, who finally gets to play a screen lead rather than brighten up an ensemble. Jessie, who has been saved from her drunken promiscuity by churchgoer Roy, now feels slightly trapped by the decent, unimaginative soul – but then gets more trapped by situations, as she has to lie about Carlos’s whereabouts to the suspicious cops (whose allegiances are uncertain) even as the inconsistencies trip her up, and has good panic or physical peril set-pieces as she tries desperately to ditch the drugs while circumstances conspire against her or nips back to the restaurant car for some sugar and finds she’s on a carriage detached from the rest of the train and being borne towards a torture shack in the woods. The home stretch springs a couple of slightly too-signposted twists, and once the film hops off the train it naturally loses its momentum – and doesn’t even make much of a cruel bit whereby the villains choose not to lock up the innocents but simply take away their shoes and socks knowing they won’t be able to get far in the snow without them. A good solid programmer.