Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Transsiberian -- lenses and lies

Director: Brad Anderson, 2008.

"Kill off all my demons, Roy, and my angels might die, too," says Jessie to her husband Roy near the start of the movie. We get the sense that her character is multifaceted in contrast to Roy. Indeed, Transsiberian is built around her character and her ever-present camera.

Roy and Jesse are returning from a two-week missions trip in Beijing through their church. She has been taking photos of children, her pictures showing something of God's grace in the lives of these little ones. But it is clear that it is Roy's church and his faith, not so much theirs. Woody Harrelson gives Roy a naive, almost childlike faith, in God and people. He is the small-town store owner from the mid-West. In contrast, Jessie has a dark past. The trans-Siberian train ride to Moscow is Roy's idea of adventure for them, an opportunity to patch some marital problems.

When handsome but suspicious couple Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara), English teachers overseas, join them as their cabin-mates their compartment feels claustrophobic. How can they reestablish their marriage with these strangers merely feet away?
The movie opens with a scene from a Russian port. A boat deck with a body, the frozen corpse still sitting at his dinner table. A knife is buried in his neck up to the hilt. Russian Narcotics Detective Grinko (Ben Kingsley) quietly observes and discovers a drug smuggling compartment that is missing the drugs. Picking up the phone left on the table, he walks away from the scene. This short prolog sets the scene for the story -- it is one of drugs stolen, of cruel Russian police pursuing barbaric criminals. It is not for the faint of heart. carefully builds the tension slowly. The first act introduces the main characters. When Roy goes off with Carlos and never reboards the train there is an air of mystery; something sinister is afoot. This continues as Grinko embarks on the lookout for students or young people who are mules, running drugs for the Russian mob. When Carlos and Abby fail to get back on the train, Grinko becomes their new compartment occupant. He is the last person Jessie wants in her cabin. This deepens the plot and adds a further threatening element to her demons.

Who is good and who is bad? As Jessie says at the start, we all have our demons as well as our angels. We are more than one-dimensional. Jessie is a great example of this, but it is true in reality. Biblically, we are touched by sin (Jer. 17:9). This has impacted all of our being, our mind, emotions, will, motivations, etc. We may have good qualities but even these are marred so that, as Isaiah puts it, "all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away" (Isa. 64:6). Paul echoes this when he says, "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:10). We are complex characters with our fair share of both good and bad.

It is implied, here, that we can change another person. Of course, that is wrong. The only person we can change is ourself. It is implied, too, that in making someone better we will destroy their good qualities as well; we might make them boring, mundane, a kind of Roy-like figure. Anderson seems to suggest that only by having some demons, some dark past, can we have a bright present. This is like those in the church that wish they had a "powerful testimony," perhaps a drug or criminal past from which they have been saved. A person from a Christian home who came to follow Jesus as a child would have no striking story. But this is errant thought. A person does not have to have a full set of demons to have an angelic future. Indeed, Jesus lived a sinless life, no demons, no dark secrets, no skeletons in the closet (1 Pet. 2:23). Yet, his is the purest, most perfect life; his is the most beautiful character of anyone who has ever lived. problem with Transsiberian is that it becomes contrived, even preposterous, as it moves towards its climax. And Jessie's character crumbles under pressure. Yet, the tension keeps us engaged. There is a scene of gruesome torture that is hard to watch, but conveys the seriousness of the situation that Jessie finds herself in. And it is her camera that plays a key role in bringing resolution to the film. As she hid behind her camera, seeing the world through its lens, so the world can see what she sees. And captured on digital film, it provides evidence for and against her.

Emily Mortimer, the sister-in-law in Lars and the Real Girl, gives another superb performance showing the fragility of a woman caught up in a past that had its problems and a present full of lies. She holds her ground against Oscar-winner Kingsley. Indeed, Jessie's character exposure and dissolution are the highlight of this film. When she faces Grinko, and he is questioning her, he knows she is lying and hiding something. He says: "In Russia, we have expression. 'With lies, you may go ahead in the world, but you may never go back.' Do you understand this, Jessie?" A crucial moment in the plot, Jessie must make a decision: to tell the truth and face the consequences, or to lie and live with its web of deceit. This becomes the pivotal moment.

Transsiberian reminds me of Wolves in the Snow. Both films are layered thrillers. Both films are set in snow-covered locales. Both films are centered around a woman who must make a decision, and in choosing the path of deceit find circumstances spiral out of her control. In both films the message is clear. Lies will catch you out. You can't escape them.

Ethically, we know this is true. A lie might seem easy at the time. But once spoken, it must be remembered and all evidence that would refute it must be hidden or destroyed. Such subterfuge takes an enormous toll, on the character as well as on the pscyhe. This is seen in the face of Jessie, as her easy smile becomes a permanent frown. Would we be more like Roy, child-like and open-faced, smiling, or like Jessie, layered and hidden, frowning? Don't make the mistake of seeking to go ahead in the world through the little white lie. You will regret it.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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