If you’ve sensed a certain weird, low-fi ubiquitousness in theaters this summer, you might not be alone. It’s been a Ben Kingsley type of year, with the 64-year-old Oscar-winning actor appearing in a quintet of movies: Mike Myers’ The Love Guru, John Cusack’s War, Inc., Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness, Isabel Coixet’s Elegy, and now director Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian — the latter a slow-boil, humanistic thriller about an American couple who get sucked into a downward spiraling drug investigation while traveling by train in a foreign land.
For all the positive notices Kingsley is receiving for Elegy, which features his least affected performance — as a brilliant, British-born college professor who falls for Penelope Cruz’s much younger student, and spends a lot of time coming up with reasons to push her away — it may be Transsiberian that he most controls, in a gut-level sense. And it’s no surprise why. An Englishman who’s portrayed the unlikely trio of Gandhi, Lenin and Moses, Kingsley is famously adept at accents, and in the wintry Transsiberian he slips into a convincing Russian dialect as a quietly intimidating investigator who may have his own dark set of rules.
Co-written by Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9) with previous collaborator Will Conroy, Transsiberian unfolds on the legendary, same-named train. Iowa hardware store owner Roy (Woody Harrelson, operating in his charming goofball mode) and his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer) decide to take the long way home after a church-outreach sojourn to China. En route from Beijing to Moscow, the pair meet up with another young couple, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara), and bond over booze for the guys and cigarettes for the gals.
Roy gets separated from the group at a stop, and complications ensue when the trio disembark to wait for him to catch the next train, which ends up taking a day and a half. When Roy and Jessie are reunited, the former is accompanied by Ilya Grinko (Kingsley), a Russian narcotics detective who’s trying to track down some missing heroin, which he believes may be being smuggled in novel form.
On its own deliberately plotted terms, Transsiberian more or less works, though chiefly as a drama instead of a thriller. As with Session 9, Anderson convincingly establishes a place that serves as a compelling anchor of mood for his film as a whole; here, though, it’s not plumbed for creepy effect so much as it is for general detail. The movie turns on a couple shocking acts of violence that complicate the story in interesting ways, with the intrigue really thickening at the 50-minute mark, and again with a second story bump at the 80-minute mark.
Not entirely coincidentally, after an early introduction, these moments loosely align with Kingsley’s reintroduction to the narrative. As Grinko, a veteran cop who’s suffered the socioeconomic disadvantages of the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kingsley displays a certain darkly chameleonic charm; partly solicitous, partly menacing, he slips into the movie, skulks around and stalks off with its soul, mostly because we never seem to get a firm grasp of what exactly he wants. Far from coming off as irresolute, though, Kingsley just deftly plays the undertones of sometimes conflicting motivations. Even after fates are decided in relatively stark terms for other characters, we’re left to wonder a bit about Grinko, which seems in every way appropriate, given Kingsley’s performance.
Transsiberian seems to fit in nicely with Kingsley’s latter-day career arc, in which nothing is too precious. After his Academy Award victory for Gandhi, Kingsley spent almost a decade in high-tone exile, tackling important dramas that didn’t really reach the same sort of audience, commercially or critically. A Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 1991’s Bugsy put him back in play for Hollywood filmmakers, and then Kingsley seemed to loosen up a bit. Every Searching for Bobby Fischer or Death and the Maiden was counterbalanced with a Species or Alice in Wonderland. Academy Award nominations in two out of three consecutive years (for Sexy Beast and House of Sand and Fog) just after the turn of the century opened the door to more studio and genre offers, and Kingsley leaped — gleefully slumming it up in Thunderbirds, A Sound of Thunder, Suspect Zero and Uwe Boll’s BloodRayne, for which he was paid seven figures for several days’ work.
Nowadays, Kingsley is a bit like the English version of Morgan Freeman — an actor with a seemingly inherent reservoir of gravitas, yet no qualms about glossy paycheck gigs. Though his personal preference may be literate, hard-hitting dramas, Kingsley will just as gladly jump into satire, broad comedy or other genres. This summer’s rush of Kingsley flicks offers up a snapshot of wide variety. Unfortunately, the common thread of the three films that have thus far enjoyed wide release has been a commercial under-performance. Despite his strong supporting turn, Transsiberian may be too muted and slow-developing to reverse that trend. (First Look, R, 111 minutes)