Emily Mortimer, in

Dir. Brad Anderson
(R) ★ ★ ★ ½

Alfred Hitchcock points the way for good suspense in motion pictures. According to his “Bomb Theory,” a couple has an innocuous conversation when all of a sudden a bomb detonates under their table; that’s surprise. However, if the same couple has the same conversation and instead the audience is shown the bomb, that’s suspense. We anxiously wait for the explosion and desire to warn the couple before it’s too late. We are engaged and participate in the drama.

Transsiberian is a suspense thriller as Hitchcock envisioned it. Director/co-writer Brad Anderson has clearly been influenced by the late, great filmmaker, from the Bernard Herrmann-esque score by Alfonso Vilallonga to the dangers-on-a-train setting. He puts a lot of bombs under a lot of tables and has learned how best to set them off.

The first bomb we are not shown right away, but we know ticking when we hear it. American couple Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) board the Trans-Siberian train to Moscow upon completing missionary work in China. On the train, they meet a younger couple: Abby (Kate Mara), another American, and Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), a Spaniard. The younger couple appears too mysterious and behaves too genially to be anything but bad news. Soon enough, Carlos shows Jessie a bag full of nesting dolls — to resell for a profit, he says. If your first thought is “heroin,” you’ve probably seen a movie before.

What happens from there I won’t reveal, but if the setup seems a bit obvious, the payoffs are anything but. The pleasure of the film is how cleverly Anderson misdirects us, how he subverts our expectations, and how his bombs count down with the utmost dramatic urgency.

The key figure is Jessie. It is her decisions and deceptions that fuel the suspense. The casting of Mortimer is in its own way a subtle misdirection: She has a soft, snowy beauty that belies Jessie’s wild-child past. Drugs, alcohol, transience — and then she met Roy as the result of a drunk driving accident, and he reformed her. But the devil-may-care Carlos reminds her of the excitement of her past, and then … see for yourself. Suffice it to say that Mortimer gives a performance of perfect ambiguity, concealing dark impulses underneath a placid exterior.

The last piece of the puzzle is Ben Kinglsey as Russian narcotics officer Grinko. In an early scene, a passenger tells Roy and Jessie the story of how the Russian police cut off his toes in response to a clerical error in his documentation — and those are the good guys. When Grinko arrives in these claustrophobic train cars, the walls start to close in and Jessie is always a half-step from disaster — a camera, a bag, and a compounding list of secrets may lead to her imminent downfall. Says Grinko, “With lies, you may go ahead in the world, but you may never go back.” Tick, tick, tick, tick …

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