Year Released: 2008
Directed by: Brad Anderson
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega, Ben Kingsley
(R, 111 min.)
"Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Sir Winston Churchill
In 2008 it crept into art house theaters as silently as the snow that blankets the Russian steppes. This white-hot thriller is a claustrophobic brew of crowded compartments, narrow corridors, and the “kindness” of strangers, with a few near frozen corpses thrown in for good measure.
It all starts off innocently enough; that is, if you ignore the opening scene, a Vladivostok drug dealer with a cold blank stare and a bloody knife protruding from his neck. The good Russian detective Grinko (Ben Kingsley) is quite capable of handling that affair, however, which is, by the way, far, far from Beijing, where Roy (Woody Harrelson) and his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer) have just finished some church sponsored charity work. Roy, a real train buff, persuades Jessie to take the eight-day Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow before heading home.
Aboard the rather austere train, a feeling of unease is evoked by the train’s ‘hostess,” a purposely rude matron whose title is an ironic understatement, one supported by those who have traversed Russia. Lurid tales of Russian police and severed fingers as payment for passport improprieties do not go down as easily as the Vodka that flows in the crowded compartments, a discordant undercurrent to the drunken chorus of assorted merrymakers.
I’ll have to give credit to both Harrelson and Brad Anderson, director and co-screenwriter for presenting Roy, a church going, Idaho hardware store owner, as somewhat naïve and friendly to a fault, but certainly not as the caricature to which Hollywood is prone; i.e. a dim-witted, Bible thumping bigot or hypocrite.
Emily Mortimer’s Jesse has the pivotal role, though, and her character is revealed layer by layer, a former lost soul who has taken shelter from the storm in Roy’s unconditional love. The only apparent residual of her former self is her chain smoking, which Roy laments he has not been able to curb.
“Kill all my demons,” she warns, as he playfully chastises her for the habit, “and my angels might die, too.”
In fact, Jessie is a little like the Russian nesting dolls shown her by Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), a seductively handsome Spaniard traveling with Abby, a young American who seems the embodiment of what Jesse might have been not that long ago. Inside each painted matryoshka doll is another smaller one, ending with one that cannot be opened.
Jesse keeps her other former selves sealed within, declining Carlos’ proffered Vodka with the adamant zeal of one who has known the lure of that and more. Carlos also is a type she has known and rejected, but she welcomes his and Abby’s friendship when Roy fails to board the train after a short stop. Shades of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, but this vanishing act is not just a nice little old lady one has just met on a train, but Jessie's loving husband who has brought a shattered life back from a precipice.
Roy, the bureaucrats assure Jesse with that vague and bland certainty of their breed, has probably just missed the train and will arrive before too long. The audience, remembering the earlier parting shot of Carlos and Roy looking at steam engines with Carlos strangely fingering an iron bar, is not quite so sure.
And so the film teases and torments us onward, setting us up in a maze of blind alleys and distorted mirrors, where things and people are seldom what they seem. The dread that we expect shatters, leaving us giddy and vulnerable to the new dread we didn’t quite anticipate. And like Alfred Hitchcock’s sober pronouncements at the end of his hourly television show, this breathtaking climax ends with a coda that provides a final irony.
We learn much more about both Jessie and Abby when the Trans-Siberian Express makes a short stop. The two stroll past the little shops next to the train station, and Abby grabs a pirog, a Russian dumpling not unlike our Asian Pot Stickers. Jessie gets one as well.
As the two nibble on the meat-filled pastry pockets, they talk about their pasts, and Jessie reveals that she was once a lot like the rootless Abby. Over this treat “as Russian as the Volga boatman and as old as the seventeenth-century nobles who served them at banquets” they cement a friendship that will have lasting consequences for both of them.
Find a friend to share these delicacies with you. Who knows what lasting rewards you shall reap.
Pierogi, pirog, pirozhki all get their name from the Russian root word "pir" which means feast. The may be made with a yeast dough, a shortcrust pastry, or this wonderful sour cream pastry. The sour cream keeps the dough moist so it does not dry when you sauté it.
FILLING: Potato and Cheese
• 1 to 1-1/2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and boiled
• 1 tablespoon butter at room temperature
• 1/4 to 1/2 cup milk
• 1/4 to 1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese (to taste)
• Salt and pepper to taste
Yield: About 18 - 24 pieces, according to size of dough cutter
2 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
2 cups (1 pint) sour cream
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons salt
4 1/2 cups all purpose flour
4 tablespoons oil for sauté
Mash boiled potatoes with butter and milk. Stir in grated cheese. Season with salt and freshly milled pepper to taste. Set aside to cool before using as stuffing.
While cooling, make dough. In a medium bowl, lightly beat eggs. Stir in sour cream, butter, oil and salt. Mix to combine. Slowly mix in flour. When flour is blended and gathers into a ball, knead on a lightly floured surface into a soft pliable dough, about 10 - 12 minutes. Cut dough in half and let rest in a oiled bowl, covered, for 10 minutes.
Roll out each dough half into a thin circle, about 1/8 inch. Using the rim of a wide drinking glass cut the dough into round circles.
Place less than a tablespoon of filling on half of each circle, leaving a slight margin at the edge. Moisten the edges of the dough. Fold the other half of the dough over the filling. Press into half-moons and seal with water. Crimping lightly with a fork tightens the seal and creates an attractive edge.
Bring large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop pierogi gently into water, using a long-handled spoon to avoid splashing. Cook for 10 minutes. Pierogi are done when they float to the surface. Remove with a slotted spoon, and set on paper towels to drain.
Sauté pierogi in butter, lightly turning once until they are golden on both sides.
Recipe Source: inmamaskitchen.com