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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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If Transsiberian makes you think of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train or The Lady Vanishes, you are on the right track (pun intended).

The Innocents Abroad

The sense of isolation on the train in the middle of winter adds to the tension
The sense of isolation on the train in the middle of winter adds to the tension

If the difference between conservatives and liberals is that liberals think people are fundamentally honest and can be trusted, then Transsiberian is a conservative movie with a liberal chump of a protagonist.

Woody Harrelson dons his naïve Cheers persona to play Roy, a churchgoing midwesterner returning from a mission to China with his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer). Roy loves trains and jumps at the chance to take the Transsiberian across Russia. On board, they meet another, more footloose young couple, Abby and Carlos (Kate Mara and Eduardo Noriega). Carlos seems just a little too friendly, like a pickpocket, and Roy seems hopelessly naïve, especially in a second-world country where corruption and lawlessness are part of the landscape.

Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) keeps the tension high, introducing potentially explosive plot points like the cruelty of Russian prisons, the aggression of the drug-sniffing dogs, and something to do with a vicious murder being investigated by a detective (Ben Kingsley).

Trust No One

Rather than saying Transsiberian is good, I say that it’s effective. The movie sets out to make you squirm in your seat from the tension, and it does a very good job of it. It uses many of the tropes that worked so well for Hitchcock: an innocent man caught in an underworld he’s not cut out for, the absence of authority and safety, and questions of trust and betrayal.

Those last two are particularly scary. What scares me more than monsters or gore is the idea of societal collapse, the idea that things could get so bad that you can no longer trust your neighbors. Even a person such as Roy, who has faith that people are generally good, would have to admit that if everyone else believed that people are generally evil, things could get ugly. Paranoia makes for bad neighbors; people act as though nobody can be trusted, soon society devolves into a defensive, violent place where every man is an island. Transsiberian doesn’t quite let things slip to that level, but the sense of isolation on the train in the middle of winter certainly raises the sense that there’s nobody one could call if one needed a cop.

Transsiberian is fairly predictable, but for every development you see coming five minutes away, there’s a minor twist that keeps your guess from being 100% accurate. And there are enough twists to keep the film chugging down its track relentlessly toward its inevitable destination.

It’s fun to see Woody Harrelson as a good boy again. Mortimer sells her used-to-be-a-bad-girl persona, and Noriega is magnetic as the slick travel companion. The cinematography is deliciously cold; Transsiberian is a good choice for a winter night when you want to be extra grateful to be warm in your little home-video nest.

DVD Extras

There aren’t any.

Picture and Sound

Picture quality is very good. I loved the wintery look of the flim, and the transfer is very clean. The audio “only” Dolby Digital 5.1; presumably the Blu-Ray has higher quality sound, and some of the trailers for other films (or was it the film’s credits?) boasted DTS, which this DVD doesn’t have. In any case, the DVD audio is good, if unremarkable.

How to Use This DVD

Turn down the thermostat and the lights. Pick some comfy sweat pants and lots of blankets. Pop it in and fight the chills.